Google Data Center Now Open for a Virtual Tour

Google is usually very secretive about its data centers due to user privacy concerns, but is now showing their IT infrastructure off in an online virtual tour.

Google usually keeps the contents of its data centers closed to prying eyes to protect the security of user data, and that's meant that few outsiders have seen the innards of Google's technological wonders.

That changed literally overnight when Google unveiled a new virtual tour of the insides of its data centers so it could show off some of the technological innovations and highlights that help run its global operations.

"Today, for the first time, you can see inside our data centers and pay them a virtual visit," wrote Urs Hölzle, the company's senior vice president of technical infrastructure, in an Oct. 17 post on the Google Official Blog. "On Where the Internet lives, our new site featuring beautiful photographs by Connie Zhou, you’ll get a never-before-seen look at the technology, the people and the places that keep Google running."

On-site tours of the data centers are generally a rarity, wrote Hölzle. "Very few people have stepped inside Google’s data centers, and for good reason: Our first priority is the privacy and security of your data, and we go to great lengths to protect it, keeping our sites under close guard. While we’ve shared many of our designs and best practices, and we’ve been publishing our efficiency data since 2008, only a small set of employees have access to the server floor itself."

The new data center image collection is extensive, colorful and exhaustive, including photos of brightly colored cooling pipes, dramatically-lit server racks and exterior shots of the facilities where the hardware and Google teams are located around the world.

Also visible are new Google Street View images, and a YouTube guided tour, of the company's Lenoir, N.C., data center so that online visitors can explore its high-tech guts.

"Fourteen years ago, back when Google was a student research project, [co-founders] Larry [Page] and Sergey [Brin] powered their new search engine using a few cheap, off-the-shelf servers stacked in creative ways," wrote Hölzle. "We’ve grown a bit since then, and we hope you enjoy this glimpse at what we’ve built."

In an interview with eWEEK, Joe Kava, Google's senior director of data center construction and operations, said that the virtual tour was created to "shed some light on the technology and the innovations in a way that doesn’t jeopardize our customers' information and security."

Google gets hundreds of requests each year for facility tours, but they are typically rejected.

In the virtual tour, though, the company can highlight the innovative water cooling systems in its Hamina, Finland, and St. Ghislain, Belgium, facilities. The Finland facility uses readily-available seawater for cooling, while the Belgium data center construction included a water treatment plant so that water from an adjacent industrial canal can be cleaned and used in place of potable water supplies, said Kava.

"We really look at every needed data center build as a kind of blank slate," said Kava. "We look at the natural environment nearby, the climate where it is located and at what other resources are available to determine what to build. Every data center is a unique opportunity to make it as efficient as possible and to bring in new innovations."

Some areas of Google's data centers, however, such as rooms filled with commercial networking equipment, look just like those in traditional data centers but employ best practices, said Kava.

Google has nine operating data centers around the world, including six in the United States and three in Europe. Three new facilities are being built in Asia, while one new data center is under construction in Latin America.

The company's data centers are often in the news.

In September, Google announced that it would soon start buying green wind power for its expanding data center in Mayes County, Okla., as the search company continues to grow its use of renewable, green energy at its facilities.

In March, Google began using used recycled "grey water" from residential users' toilets and bathtubs to help cool its Georgia data center.

Ironically, Google's strict privacy policies about refusing data center tours are particularly interesting in light of the company's privacy policies regarding its handling of user data.

The company is again being sharply criticized lately by European officials about how the search engine giant uses the data it collects about its online users who employ their extensive services.

"Google's efforts to track users across services such as YouTube and Gmail do not meet European standards of privacy, officials announced Tuesday," according to an Oct. 15 story in The Washington Post.

Regulators from 27 countries have signed a letter and sent it to Google asking the company "to give users more notice about how their data are collected and seek consent in some cases," The Post reported.