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Google Sets Your Data Adrift?

Posted: 09/18/08 12:31 PM ET

Google may need to soon modify an old Scottish folk song "My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean" to the following:

My data lies over the ocean,

My data lies over the sea,

My data lies over the ocean,

Oh bring back my data to me...

Huh?

Based on a concept published in late August via a recent patent application, Google's "Water Based Data Center," Google is seeking to patent a floating platform concept for housing a computer data center.

This may be part of Google's overall efforts in "greening" their business, given the tremendous amount of energy required for their data centers to operate.

Bill Weihl is currently working with Google on their clean energy challenges. In a July 2008 presentation, Bill discusses Google's server infrastructure and efficiency initiatives, renewable energy options and their current cost profiles. From an article by Rich Miller on datacenterknowledge.com,

The challenge, as Weihl acknowledges, is that it's hard to find power that is both renewable and cheap. "From a cost point of view, renewables can't compete at all," says Weihl, who was previously the CTO at Akamai.

The article also notes that Wiehl speaks to Google's efforts to generate renewable energy, and mentions their investments in wind, thermal solar and geothermal energy. Wiehl further mentions Google has "secret research projects" around renewable energy. (Note: Bill Weihl's entire 58 minute presentation is available too.)

Aha! Could one of these research projects be the floating data center? Miller wrote previously about the pending patent application for this invention. The concept is summarized in that earlier article:

The Google design incorporates the Pelamis Wave Energy Converter units, which use the motion of ocean surface waves to create electricity and can be combined to form "wave farms." The largest existing project uses seven Pelamis units to generate about 5 megawatts of power. Diagrams included with Google's patent application indicate the company plans to combine 40 or more Pelamis units to produce 40 megawatts of power.

Now this is getting interesting. Pelamis Wave Power, a Scottish-based company currently has developed a technology to harness ocean energy for the "clean" generation of electricity. The Pelamis website advertises three projects underway in various stages in Portugal, Scotland, and the UK. From their own brochure, the technology is described:

The machine is a semi-submerged, articulated structure composed of cylindrical sections linked by hinged joints. The wave-induced motion of these joints is resisted by hydraulic rams, which pump high-pressure oil through hydraulic motors via smoothing accumulators. The hydraulic motors drive electrical generators to produce electricity. Power from all the joints is fed down a single umbilical cable to a junction on the sea bed. Several devices can be connected together and linked to shore through a single seabed cable.

What this means is that a large, floating, hinged "snake," which is tethered to the sea floor, creates electricity by using the repetitive motion of waves to drive a hydraulic system and converts that energy from hydraulic to electrical. That's a rather simplified picture but you get the gist. Their design is more fully described within an issued US patent 6,476,511.

Before you determine that global electricity problems have been solved, note that there are some operational limitations of the technology, particularly around optimal location for the facility (based on distances, shoreline, geology, wave characteristics etc). The electricity needs to be delivered to shore via a sub-sea cable, and to tether the apparatus to the sea floor, there will be limits on where it can or can't be connected. But still a potential green game-changer!

So let's get back to Google. Can they theoretically use these offshore data centers to reduce reliance upon traditional fuels for electricity? Yes, but they still need other approaches, because not all their facilities are located where oceanic (or even river) power is accessible. See Royal Pingdom's handy mapping of the known 36 Google server locations (existing and under construction) and you will see many are landlocked, thus not able to use the water-based data center. Hence Google's continued focus on a variety of renewable fuel sources.

Google is secretive about power usage and data centers in general, so the ultimate savings to be gleaned is tough to calculate. Buried in Google's balance sheet lies the cost of the electricity required to fuel these services (for example their G&A expenses for 2007 is listed as USD ~$1.3B). And the capital cost of implementing the water-based data center, from site selection to permits to construction and start-up would be required to understand the investment and payback horizon. But given that public estimates of Google's power usage per major data center range from 50-100MW, you can bet the interest in reducing the cost and increasing the "green quotient" is intense.

Although the technology is intriguing, it is even more fun to think about some bizarre potential implications of the whole thing. Google's concept is sort of a floating "Love Boat" of computing power. Can the servers sail away to a distant land? Could these centers be located in international waters? What else could be located on board with the data center? We will have to follow Google's next moves to see.