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October 27, 2013
I think this is a great story about how Google might be (please, do note the “might be”) building data centres that sit on floating barges. The idea is that they can generate electricity from wave energy and they also have large amounts of lovely cool water to use as coolant for the same centres. The reporting is here:
Something big and mysterious is rising from a floating barge at the end of Treasure Island, a former Navy base in the middle of San Francisco Bay. And Google’s fingerprints are all over it.
It’s unclear what’s inside the structure, which stands about four stories high and was made with a series of modern cargo containers. The same goes for when it will be unveiled, but the big tease has already begun. Locals refer to it as the secret project.
Google did not respond to multiple requests for comment. But after going through lease agreements, tracking a contact tied to the project on LinkedIn, talking to locals on Treasure Island, and consulting with experts, it’s all but certain that Google is the entity that is building the massive structure that’s in plain sight, but behind tight security.
Could the structure be a sea-faring data center? One expert who was shown pictures of the structure thinks so, especially because being on a barge provides easy access to a source of cooling, as well as an inexpensive source of power — the sea. And even more tellingly, Google was granted a patent in 2009 for a floating data center, and putting data centers inside shipping containers is already a well-established practice.
What fun, eh? And what will the guys at Mountain View think of next?
However, over at Mashable we find a further piece of speculation, a piece of speculation that just isn’t correct I’m afraid:
Google, one of the world’s largest users of data, may finally be making good on a five year-old patent to build offshore data centers — cooled and powered by the ocean, and potentially beyond reach of the government.
That bit about being beyond the reach of the government. I’m afraid that doesn’t quite work.
Keeping data in the oceans would cut millions from Google’s data storage costs. And it can’t have failed to escape the company’s attention that putting data centers in international waters would theoretically put it beyond the reach of government interference. Sorry, NSA.
Well, yes, international waters would solve one part of the problem but not another. And they’re not going to put these barges in international waters, not if they have any sense they’re not.
There’s a number of little bits and pieces to put together here in order to make up the full picture.
The first is that this is all taking place upon a barge hull. Barges are great, barges are wonderful, but they’re not things that you put out in the ocean as a regular thing. You might run them across a patch of ocean in calm weather but you most certainly don’t sit them out there all the time. The hull shape is wrong: you need a sea-going hull to be able to feel secure out there. Further, in the pictures of the creation you can see that it’s a vast high sided block on top of that barge hull. Again, that’s just not something you’re going to be happy with if you’re going to be out in the open sea. A high flat wall like that will operate just like a sail in winds of any speed.
So, at least as far as we know, this just isn’t being built for the open ocean.
The cooling power of the water though will work just as well in sheltered waters near to land. So we might well imagine that something like this will operate just off the coast or in some nice bay or the shelter of an island somewhere. Which is indeed what the original Google designs have been for:
Why? Google’s patent spelled out some of the most valuable advantages: Because the system is built from modular, standard-size shipping containers, it’s easy to deploy, via ship or truck, to areas that are in most need of Internet infrastructure; there’s little-to-no pollution created by wave-generated energy; and a floating data center could produce plenty of power via wave energy at a distance of 3 to 7 miles offshore, and in 50 to 70 meters of water.
It’s that 3 to 7 miles offshore that is important. It used to be that the writ of the government stopped 3 miles offshore (for the perfectly sensible reason that that’s how far a cannonball would go, so that’s how far the government could defend its writ) but this was changed some time ago to 12 miles. The waters 12 miles off a coast are known as “territorial waters” and the writ of the local government, whoever it is, extends out into the oceans that far. Anyone’s allowed to sail by but the basic laws of the country still apply out to 12 miles out.
There’s a couple of other points as well: Google might put its data servers offshore but they’ve still got to have a cable (and yes, it will be a cable, not a wireless link) to bring that data back onshore. There’s no reason at all that the US government or the NSA cannot intercept whatever it is that they want at that point rather than in the actual data centre. And of course the existence of that cable makes having something bobbing around in the middle of the Pacific Ocean something of a problem too. No one at all is going to want to run 20 or 30 miles of undersea fibre-optic out to a barge. This simply isn’t going to happen (quite apart from anything else the barge won’t remain static. An oil rig would and this has been done but things that float don’t stay in the same place all the time).
All in all I think it looks like a very fun technology and I wish Google every luck with it. But it’s not going to be free of Federal or NSA interference. Somewhere like San Francisco Bay would be a great place to put one of these barges. 20 miles offshore, outside US territorial waters, would not be. And given that San Francisco Bay is fully and entirely under the control of the US one won’t escape whatever obligations one has to the Feds by being there.