Advanced Computing in the Age of AI | Saturday, January 28, 2023

Are Google’s Next Datacenters Bound for the High Seas? 

The next time you hear someone say that Google is managing a fleet of servers, it might be literal as well as figurative. The folks at the Googleplex headquarters in Mountain View, California appear to be testing out floating datacenters in San Francisco bay and possibly in Portland, Maine – an idea the company patented four years ago.

Get out your eye patches and parrots and let the pirate jokes begin, particularly with one of the supposed datacenters being moored off Treasure Island between San Francisco and Oakland. Arhhhh!

Daniel Terdiman at CNET has put together some photographic and circumstantial evidence that suggests a four-story structure rising from a barge near the San Francisco Bay Bridge is a floating Google datacenter. As usual, Google has not responded to requests for more information about the structure, which is built from shipping containers, but Terdiman makes a credible case that something fishy is going on.

You might be thinking that stacking up shipping containers on a barge out in the bay is not the safest place to put what could be hundreds of millions of dollars of computing equipment, particularly with all of that salt water around. Well, first, shipping containers are already sea-faring and water-proof, and they already bring all kinds of manufactured goods across the Pacific from Asia every day – including computer components and complete systems. As for salt water, Google has already turned an old paper mill in Hamina, Finland that was cooled by sea water into a datacenter that is also cooled in the same manner. The company has invested €350 million so far in converting this facility into a datacenter in two phases, and it is one of the most efficient facilities that Google operates. The point is, Google knows about salt water corrosion and how to keep it away from the computing gear.

The free cooling that a water-based datacenter offers is an obvious benefit, but there is also the possibility that mooring a massive barge of datacenter gear off the coast would be cheaper than real estate in very pricey metropolitan areas like San Francisco, New York, London, Tokyo, and so on. And it might even be tax free, if you can move it far enough off the coast.

It is hard to imagine environmentalists in San Francisco being cool with Google heating up the bay, and hence it is probably a good thing this is built on a barge and thus it can be moved. In fact, making a datacenter mobile is one of the advantages of such a flotilla of servers in Google's parent on the idea from April 2008.

That patent also talks of using a network of Pelamis wave power machines to generate electricity near the floating datacenter, or having other kinds of generators on the shore that convert tidal motion into electricity and then run wires out to the floating datacenter offshore. Here is a side view of the proposed water-based datacenter from the patent with a Pelamis wave motion generator trailing behind it.

google-floating-datacenter-patentAnd here is a top view with a network of wave-motion electrical generators:

google-floating-datacenter-patent-2The facility off Treasure Island in San Francisco bay is a lot larger than this proposed dataship, based on the pictures taken by CNET and assuming that it is, indeed, a floating datacenter. The structure looks like it holds around 128 shipping containers on the barge. Depending on the size of the containers and the racks inside, each container could support more than 2,800 racks and just north of 225,000 servers. Of course, with storage and networking gear in the racks, it is probably closer to a capacity of around 100,000 servers. Still, this would be a massive datacenter by any scale.

The Portland Press Herald has done a little investigative reporting after a mysterious barge with a similar four-story structure, looking like it is made from shipping containers, arrived off the Ricker's Warf Marine Facility in its hometown in Maine. There is a lot of speculation about what this structure is, and Cianbro Corp, which is doing work on the structure, is not telling any tales.

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