Closer Look: The Mysterious Barge in the Bay

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SAN FRANCISCO - It’s hard to say for sure just what’s being built on a barge docked at Treasure Island, in the middle of San Francisco Bay. Judging by the looks of it, though, a data center by infrastructure innovator Google is one of the possibilities.

CNET reported Friday on the signs pointing to Google’s involvement in the project, and speculating that it was a floating data center. On Sunday CNET acknowledged a report from local television station KPIX 5 indicating that the structure could actually be “a floating marketing center” for Google Glass.

Google itself hasn’t admitted any involvement with the project or announced the true purpose of the structure, leaving open the possibility that the company is following through with the construction of a “water-based data center.” Google has been awarded a patent for the design of a data ship that uses sea water for cooling and generates electricity with the the motion of waves.

The facility on the barge at Treasure Island has some unusual characteristics. For starters, 12 vertical poles rise above the top of  the unit. (Don’t be distracted by the seagull perched on the third one from the left.)

The structure on a ship off of Treasure Island. (Photo: Jordan Novet)

The unusual structure being built on a ship docked  off of Treasure Island in San Francisco. (Photo: Jordan Novet)

The long sides of the structure, which expose what seem to be several modules, let light shine in through narrow windows, which could represent corridors within the structure. Meanwhile, the end of the structure facing the island contains multiple large window panels spanning two stories.

Large window panels face the island. (Photo: Jordan Novet)

Large window panels face the island. (Photo: Jordan Novet)

The purpose of the flagpole-like assemblies atop the structure are unclear. Rod-like columns along the side structure are topped off with shiny silver-colored cones.

Cones cap the rods on the long sides of the structure. (Photo: Jordan Novet)

Cones cap the rods on the long sides of the structure. (Photo: Jordan Novet)

Silver-colored curved pipes jut out from the top of the side of the structure facing the island.

Curved pipes can be seen on the side of the structure facing the island. (Photo: Jordan Novet)

Curved pipes can be seen on the side of the structure facing the island. (Photo: Jordan Novet)

The seeming scarcity of vents and louvers is worth noting as well. One is visible on a top-level module on the long side of the structure, while another is on the bottom, facing the island.

A vent on the side of the structure facing Treasure Island. (Photo: Jordan Novet)

A vent on the side of the structure facing Treasure Island. (Photo: Jordan Novet)

A security guard in a booth prevented closer access to the dock and the ship holding the structure.

Security presence on the dock. (Photo: Jordan Novet)

Security presence on the dock. (Photo: Jordan Novet)

Google already makes good use of wastewater, seawater and rainwater runoff at data centers, and it has been willing to spend more than $23 billion on infrastructure. Now it would be nice to know for sure that Google is taking more advantage of water for its ever-growing footprint, perhaps generating energy with it.

About the Author

Jordan Novet is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. He has written for newspapers and magazines and most recently covered cloud computing and big data at GigaOM.

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  1. Larry

    Maybe I'm missing the point of this - why would Google want to build a data center on a barge? It could sink. It could flood. It could get captured by pirates. It could get destroyed in a storm. You need super fast and secure connectivity that is redundant to connect a data center to the interwebs. How do you do that from the middle of the ocean? How do you get staff back and forth to it to maintain the servers?