The Barge Mystery: Floating Data Centers or Google Store?

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

The unusual structure on a barge off of Treasure Island, which is in San Francisco Bay. (Photo: Jordan Novet)

The prototypes of the “Google Navy” have been discovered on both coasts. But are they floating data centers? Or some kind of marketing facility for Google Glass?

CNet reported Friday that a barge in San Francisco Bay stacked high with shipping containers may be a floating data center being built by Google. A nearly identical facility has appeared in a harbor in Portland, Maine, according to the Portland Press-Herald.

Both barges are owned by “By and Large. LLC,” which is a mysterious company whose name echoes a fictional corporation from Wall-E and other Pixar films. CNet has found numerous hints that the firm is tied to Google, which has a history of using LLCs to seed its data center projects.

But is it a data center? San Francisco’s KPIX reports that the building is indeed a Google initiative, but is actually a secret marketing barge to promote Google Glass, the company’s new wearable tech offering. The TV station said work has been halted because Google doesn’t have permits to park the barge at San Francisco’s Fort Mason, as it had hoped. (See Data Center Knowledge photo spread of the San Francisco structure.)

So which is it? We don’t cover retail much, so we’ll leave that branch of speculation to others. But let’s look at the evidence for and against the data center theory.

Hints From Google’s Patents

Google’s interest in floating data centers was revealed in a 2008 patent, which generated significant discussion in the industry about the pros and cons of the concept.  The structure in San Francisco Bay bears a strong resemblance to designs from Google patent filings for modular data center technology.

Google isn’t the only one that has been intrigued with the idea of seagoing server farms. In early 2008, start-up International Data Security announced plans to build a fleet of “maritime data centers” on cargo ships docked at ports in San Francisco Bay. But the plan was never funded and the efforts were discontinued.

Google’s first company-built data centers were assembled using shipping containers filled with servers, as seen in this photo of a facility built in 2005.


A look at shipping containers packed with servers inside a Google data center. (Photo: Google)

Google soon shifted back to more traditional data center designs using rows of servers in a data hall. So why would it now pursue the “data barge” concept? Google isn’t likely to adopt such a shift in its mission-critical infrastructure unless it brings significant new capabilities or improved economics. Operating a floating data center in San Francisco wouldn’t appear to offer either possibility.

At the same time, the structure on the barge at Treasure Island closely resembles a data center design Google patented in 2010, which describes up to 100 server-filled shipping containers stacked four levels high.

An image from a Google patent depicting a stack of data center containers.

An image from a 2010 Google patent depicting a stack of data center containers.

The patent outlines how the stacked containers connect to a vertical utility spine providing power and network connections. Upper-level containers would be accessed via a series of stairs on the front side of the containers. A similar stairway is clearly seen on the mystery barge at Treasure Island.


A staircase along the exterior of the barge in San Francisco Bay bears similarities to designs in Google patents. (Photo: Jordan Novet)

Google’s patent describes containers packed with up to 2,000 processors and 5 terabytes of storage. Container sizes could vary from 20 feet to as long as 53 feet, and would be optimized for outdoor installations and “sealed against environmental elements of wind and moisture.”

“As one example, a data center may be disposed onboard a ship,” Google said in its patent filing. “Electrical power may be provided by an on-ship generator, and the cooling plant may incorporate seawater.”

Speed to Market and Pre-Fab Construction

Google notes some of the advantages of containers in the patent filing.

“Such modular computing environments may facilitate quick assembly of large data centers,” the patent says. “Large portions of a data center may be prefabricated and quickly deployed; in particular, portions of data centers may be constructed in parallel, rather than in sequence. Critical portions of data centers may be mobile and easily transported from one site to another. Portions of the data center may be manufactured by manufacturing labor, rather than constructed by trade labor (e.g., in a controlled manufacturing environment rather than in an uncontrolled construction site), possibly resulting in reduced costs.”

For more clues, let’s shift from San Francisco to the East Coast.

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About the Author

Rich Miller is the founder and editor at large of Data Center Knowledge, and has been reporting on the data center sector since 2000. He has tracked the growing impact of high-density computing on the power and cooling of data centers, and the resulting push for improved energy efficiency in these facilities.

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  1. I just read somewhere they couldn't get permits for this or are awaiting but won't reveal what it is for.

  2. It's about power, not data centers...

  3. But will they have access to water for cooling?

  4. This is simply a pre-fab module that will be transported to another location similar to what other big companies are doing with construction outsourcing like this:

  5. F. Wylie

    No cheap power in SF, and no power purchase agreement from PG&E, and no air permit for on-board power. The barge is likely going to China or other site, where they can tie into power to run this barge.

  6. John Bogbee

    Nuke plants cant dump their hot water without complex permits and work arounds, how will folks in the Bay area feel when Google heats the estuaries up. What suicidal public official would sign that permit? If its offshore, who would want to live on a boat parked for days on end watching servers. A helicopter or boat ride seems like a pretty long, expensive commute and tie that to the cost of paying an expensive it guy to spend the prime of his life in a boat, when there are IT jobs in major party life city's near by.

  7. Mo Bill

    IT guys have lives?

  8. Depending on where they moor the ship they could have various types of tidal-turbine generators to reduce shore-power and generation costs.