The Barge Mystery: Floating Data Centers or Google Store?

Could barges stacked with containers and spotted in San Francisco and Portland, Maine waterways be the Google floating data center projects? Or is it another practical joke from the Googlers? Data Center Knowledge examines the mystery.

Rich Miller

October 28, 2013

8 Min Read
The Barge Mystery: Floating Data Centers or Google Store?
Will they be singing “Anchors Away” in a sea-going data center. Mysterious barge, complete with containers and linked by stairs, appears in San Francisco and Portland, Me, and rumors abound. (Photo by Jordan Novet.)

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.

Clues From Portland?

Correlation does not equal causation. But there are some interesting connections associated with the mystery barge currently berthed in Portland, Maine. The structure, owned by the same LLC as the San Francisco barge, was reportedly built by Turner Construction in New London, Conn. and towed to Portland last month. Turner serves many industries, but is among the leading players in data center construction, having built server farms for Microsoft, Facebook, Equinix and Verizon and many others.

Among Turner's projects is a three-story modular data center for a confidential client. While Turner doesn't name the client, it's clearly a facility built using Centercore, a multi-story modular data center product developed by Fidelity Investments. While similar in concept, the project is considerable more polished than the barges. Here's a look at a completed Centercore project:



A multi-story data center built using the Centercore design developed by Fidelity Investments and Integrated Design Group. (Photo: Centercore)

The Portland barge is being worked on by contractor Cianbro. Company chairman and CEO Peter Vigue told the Press-Herald that it will "outfit the building with a substantial amount of technology.” He also says Portland is not the final destination for the barge.

Cianbro provides a wide range of fabrication services, but has recently been building business in the market for "e-rooms" that house mechanical and electrical infrastructure in pre-fabricated modular structures. Cianbro executives have worked for companies with data center experience, including Total Site Solutions and EYP Mission Critical Facilities.

Of course, e-rooms could be useful for either a data center or a floating retail store.

The Missing Ingredients: Power and Cooling

The economics of a data center project are driven by power. That's the missing link in the data barge theory. One of the novel features of Google's patent for a water-based data center was the ability to generate its own electricity using wave energy. The patent outlined several possible approaches to on-site power.

The first involves Pelamis machines, which use the motion of ocean surface waves to create electricity and can be combined to create “wave farms.” The second concept features cables that are anchored to the ocean floor, and pass through a "spring-loaded hub" floating at the surface. As the floating hub moves up and down with waves and swells, the motion would transfer the back-and-forth motion to a shaft." The resulting rotation of the shaft can be transmitted, in some cases, to a electrical generator," the patent says.

There's no evidence of either of those kind of systems associated with the barge in San Francisco Bay. They could be connected later, dependent on the barge's final destination.

As for cooling, Google is already using cold ocean water in the cooling system for its data center in Hamina, Finland. The facility uses the sea to replace the chiller in its cooling system, collecting cool water from an inlet pipe located about 7.5 meters beneath the service of the Baltic Sea. The incoming water goes into a water-to-water heat exchanger, where it cools a separate fresh water loop that is used to cool the data center - separating the corrosive salt water from key parts of the cooling system.

The Mystery Remains

For the moment, the mission of the structure at Treasure Island remains a mystery. It's not clear whether the barge is the realization of the five-year-old patent, or another kind of structure that builds upon the Google data center team's engineering designs, or something else entirely. There are plenty of folks that find it fascinating, so the speculation is likely to continue. 

Google is still not saying anything. Over the last five years, DCK has asked the Google team about the fate of the floating data center concept, but the company has never provided any details beyond a standard statement that it doesn't discuss its patents. But that doesn't rule out having some sport with them.

At the close of Google’s 2009 Data Center Efficiency Summit, Google data center executive Urs Holzle included an announcement of an oil-cooled data center project using oil tanker ships, complete with an image of an oil tanker bearing the Google logo:



Google displayed a Photoshopped image of a “prototype data center ship” as part of its Data Center Efficiency Summit in 2009.

It was a practical joke. But it remains to be seen whether it will remain so. We'll keep you posted.

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