Google's floating data center plan

Seeks to patent a data center fed by wave-powered energy

Google Inc., which has been building out its data center inventory for the past few years, is literally floating its latest idea for the location of such facilities with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

The company filed a patent application for a "water-based data center" detailing a floating data center, complete with an energy supply fed by a wave-powered generator system and a wind-powered cooling system using seawater.

The patent application, published Aug. 28, describes a modular setup that calls for "crane-removable modules" that store racks of computers. The modules would facilitate adding, subtracting and moving the computing power.

The patent application also details tapping water motion to generate power and the ability to configure the system in many different ways, including on-ship and on-shore data centers, various cooling mechanisms, backup systems, and even temporary housing and helicopter pads to support IT maintenance staffers.

Google is not the first to consider alternatives to the power-sucking data centers that it and others are constructing around the globe, to suggest unique locations or to tap the sea for innovative IT ideas.

Both Google and Microsoft Corp. are already using hydroelectric power options in the Northwest.

A couple in Nebraska that lives underground in a 1960s-era Atlas E Missile Silo wants to turn 15,000 square feet of their bunker into a highly secure data center.

And a company called SeaCode Inc. a few years ago proposed Hybrid-Sourcing, a venture that loads a fully staffed luxury liner with software engineers to get around H-1B visa restrictions and provide U.S. businesses with high-end tech workers.

Google officials say there is nothing to announce now regarding its water-based data center idea.

"We file patent applications on a variety of ideas that our employees come up with. Some of those ideas later mature into real products, services or infrastructure; some don't. We do a lot to make our infrastructure scalable and cost-efficient," a company spokesman said in response to an e-mail.

The idea, however, is fully outlined in the patent application.

Google says computing units could be mounted in shipping containers, which could be stored on ships or floating platforms and loaded and unloaded via equipment already used in shipping ports.

The computers in the containers, or "modules," could easily be replaced or updated as technology advances and adverse sea conditions exact their toll.

Proposed configurations include putting the modules on land next to a body of water.

Water is key for generating power, according to the patent, which cites the use of Pelamis machines and other devices such as wind generators to create energy.

The Pelamis machines use a series of hydraulics powered by water motion to drive motors connected to electrical generators. Other devices, such as a floating power-generation apparatus, use tethers and a spring-loaded hub to gather power from the rise and fall of water levels.

Google also proposes the option of building tidal basins with channels to the sea that are used to control the rise and fall of water that would engage the tethered power-generating devices.

The power-supply methods could be used for floating data centers or wired into on-shore data centers.

Google says such data center options can help satisfy the growing public use of the Internet and the need for bandwidth to support graphics, video and Web 2.0 applications.

But it also says highly flexible and mobile computing centers would provide "transient data centers" that could be used in times of natural disasters, military maneuvers or special events to provide temporary computing and telecommunications services.

Google's application also details cooling options using sea-powered or wind-powered pumps and seawater-to-freshwater heat exchangers.

Another option outlined is tapping at shoreline into the existing communication's infrastructure that runs under the ocean, and adding housing on floating data centers.

The plan also calls for a backup system that could rely on a fuel-based power-generation system or use energy stored by the Pelamis system or wind turbines. A solar-collection system could also be used, Google says. The patent states, "As one example, banks of batteries may be used to store electrical energy. As another example, fuel cells may be used with hydrogen kept in a reservoir, which is filled by electrolysis when wave energy is available."

Whether Google gets a patent or not, the message is that the need to satisfy bandwidth demands and to locate computing power near users may grow beyond even what pundits today are expecting.

This story, "Google's floating data center plan" was originally published by Network World.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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