Google's Mysterious Floating Barges: Glass Stores or Data Centers?

By Todd R. Weiss  |  Posted 2013-10-29

Google's Mysterious Floating Barges: Glass Stores or Data Centers?

Google has quietly and mysteriously placed two tall, large floating barges on opposite ends of the United States, one in San Francisco Bay and the other in Maine's Portland Harbor, but so far the company isn't saying what the barges contain. That, of course, has caused a flurry of attention and guesswork by pundits, news reporters and local officials, according to reports from multiple sources around the country.

Heading the list of possible uses for the large floating platforms is the idea of floating, attention-gaining Google Glass stores, while others are speculating that the barges are to be used for remote data centers that could be floated wherever they are needed.

Of course, why stop there? Perhaps Google is adding new employee benefits such as floating recreational fishing piers for workers so they can relax during their breaks, or floating mausoleums just in time for frightening bicoastal employee Halloween parties.

In San Francisco, however, KPIX TV 5 is reporting that the four-story tall collection of shipping containers is being created as a "floating marketing center, a kind of giant Apple store … for Google Glass," according to an Oct. 25 story. That report is in contrast to other theories about Google's plans, including that the barges are homes for data centers. KPIX reported that "Google hopes to tow the completed structure from [the former Navy base at] Treasure Island across the Bay to San Francisco's Fort Mason, where it would be anchored and open to the public."

In the meantime, though, work has stopped on that plan because it turned out that Google didn't have a needed permit to build and float such a facility, according to the TV station. "Google has spent millions on this," a source close to the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission told KPIX. "But they can't park this barge on the waterfront without a permit, and they don't have one."

So far, Google's discussions with the Commission have been vague about the use of the vessel, KPIX reported.

Google did not respond to a request for comment from eWEEK on the company's plans for the barges.

The data center idea has also been garnering lots of rumors about the floating facilities, according to a report by CNN. "Google has banks of servers stored in warehouses all over the world, and floating data centers aren't unheard of," according to CNN. "Sitting on that much water would provide an obvious source of cooling, which is a big concern for data centers, and possibly even a source of power. And Google has a patent for such a project."

In Portland, Maine, where the other Google barge is on the water in Portland Harbor, the Portland Press Herald reported on Oct. 26 that the two projects, on either side of the the United States, are owned by the same company, By and Large LLC, based in Wilmington, Del., and appear to be linked. Experts contacted by the paper said they also buy into the data center theory. Google previously was granted a patent in 2009 for such structures, the paper reported.

Google Glass, the company's vision for an eyewear-mounted computer, has been a topic of conversation among techies since news of it first arrived in 2012. The first early Google Glass units began shipping in April 2013 to developers who signed up at the June 2012 Google I/O conference to buy a set for $1,500 for testing and development. It was the hit of the conference and Glass units for consumers are slated for release by the end of this year, according to an earlier Google report.

Several IT analysts contacted by eWEEK also shared their views about the mysterious barges.

Google's Mysterious Floating Barges: Glass Stores or Data Centers?

Rob Enderle, principal of Enderle Group, told eWEEK that the data center idea makes the most sense, especially if people consider that by placing the completed barges at least 200 miles off the U.S. coastline, Google's floating barges would no longer fall under the privacy and security regulations and authority of the U.S. government. There would be no more National Security Agency pressures on Google with such a plan, said Enderle.

"The reason that you do it as a data center is to push it over the 200-mile limit and take it out of their jurisdiction," said Enderle. "You just anchor it out there. There's really no other reason to put a data center on a barge in the ocean, especially with salt water. Yes, you have cooling, but salt water is not good for the equipment, unless you just want to get offshore."

On the other hand, said Enderle, the idea that Google is building floating showcases for its products is also at least possible. "Companies like General Electric and General Motors, years ago through the 1950s, had buses that would go around U.S. cities and show off their innovations. Google has Google Glass coming in the future, as well as self-driving cars. This could be a floating showcase for Google where they can tie the barges up and people can go and look."

Charles King, the principal analyst at Pund-IT, said the floating data center theory sounds most plausible, but he disagrees with some theorists who argue that Google may be contemplating the idea as a way to keep away from the pesky interests of spy agencies. "Some have said Google may be planning to anchor the barge outside U.S. or other countries' territorial waters in order to make it 'spook-proof,' but I frankly consider that idea idiotic in the extreme," wrote King in an email reply. "Not only would it complicate data transmission issues even further but it would also subject the facilities to far higher levels of risk from weather, external political forces, piracy, etc."

Dan Kusnetzky, principal analyst of Kusnetzky Group, agreed that the floating data center possibility is valid, especially because of Google's past experiences with shipping containers. "Google has done quite a bit of experimentation with shipping container data centers in the past," he wrote. "This allowed them to rent space where the property and telecommunications costs were low. The small data center could be monitored and managed remotely as well as reduce the costs for administration and operations."

Future upgrades could be done by simply rolling in a new shipping container and removing the old one with its outdated equipment, wrote Kusnetzky. "The older systems could easily be replaced at a depot and the shipping container reused somewhere else."

Another analyst, Dan Olds of Gabriel Consulting Group, told eWEEK that he's betting on the floating Google Glass stores as the use for the ingenious barges. "If you remember, Target did this back in 2002 in New York City," when the chain opened a temporary store on a barge at Manhattan's Chelsea Pier for the Christmas holidays when it couldn't find an affordable, short-term location for a brick and mortar storefront in the city, said Olds. "It was pretty successful."

Meanwhile, "look at all the publicity value Google is getting out of this," said Olds. "Look at the news coverage they're getting," all of which could help further boost the success of floating Glass stores if that's the real reason behind the projects.

One problem for Google, though, could come if Glass doesn't hit the consumer marketplace soon, he added. "The latest scuttlebutt is that Glass isn't ready now, which leaves them between a barge and a hard place," said Olds. "I guess we'll find out soon."

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