Google building data centers at fast-food franchise speed

Search giant has two IT facilities in the works, may add two others as well

Google Inc. is on its way to becoming the McDonald's of data centers -- serving billions of bytes daily -- if it keeps up with what seems to be an extraordinary pace of building IT facilities.

Thus far this year, Google has announced that it is building new data centers in Lenoir, N.C., and Goose Creek, S.C., each costing $600 million. The Internet search and advertising vendor is on the verge of making a third announcement, this time in Oklahoma, and it has said it is looking at an additional site in South Carolina, near the city of Columbia.

Several of the new and prospective facilities, including one that Google built last year in The Dalles, Ore., (pop. 12,500) share some common characteristics. For those data centers, Google has selected or is considering rural locations where electricity is both plentiful and available at relatively low costs.

For example, The Dalles has a population of just 12,500 people but is the site of a namesake hydroelectric dam on the Columbia River. In North Carolina, the area that includes Lenoir (population 17,000) has a robust power grid built to support the furniture makers that once dominated the local economy.

Oklahoma news outlets reported late last week that Google was interested in the MidAmerica Industrial Park in Pryor Creek, a town of 8,659 people located in the northeastern part of the state about 30 miles from Tulsa. All Google will say about the Oklahoma site is that the company is evaluating it.

"We're just sitting here in a corner of a state -- out of sight, out of mind," said Sanders Mitchell, administrator of the MidAmerica complex. He said that with a bit of a chuckle, because his 7,000-acre industrial park may be the largest rural facility of its kind in the U.S.

The park includes a coal-fired electrical generating facility operated by the Grand River Dam Authority that can produce about 1,000 megawatts of power annually. According to a spokesman for the authority, it charges about 4.5 cents per kilowatt hour, which is similar to the electricity rates charged in the areas around The Dalles and Lenoir.

Google isn't saying how many other data centers it plans to build. But in its 2006 annual report, which was released early last month, the company said it has spent and will continue to spend "substantial amounts on the purchase and lease of data centers and equipment and the upgrade of our technology and network infrastructure."

In building data centers, "geographic diversification is important to us," Google spokesman Barry Schnitt said in a written response to questions sent via e-mail. The company's strategy, he added, is to build redundant facilities globally for "continuity of service and risk allocation."

"Our immediate capacity needs require construction of more than one data center at the same time," Schnitt wrote. "Logistically, it would be very difficult if not impossible to do that in the same place at the same time."

There aren't enough construction workers, machinery, materials or room to build the number of facilities Google needs in a single location, according to Schnitt. "Even if there were, it would be highly unsafe and counterproductive to have too many people, trucks and pieces of machinery in one place," he wrote.

Companies typically try to keep the locations of their data centers quiet, often housing them in low-key office park buildings that are identified by address only. But maintaining secrecy about its IT locations can be extremely difficult for Google because of the company's high profile and rapid growth.

A search for data center jobs on Google's corporate Web site provides a location guide: In addition to the facilities in Oregon and North Carolina, the site lists openings at data centers in places such as Mountain View, Calif., where Google is based, as well as Atlanta and Santa Monica, Calif.

Last Wednesday, Google and South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford jointly announced the company's plan to build a data center in Goose Creek, a suburban community that is located in the Charleston metropolitan area and has a population of 30,300 people.

Goose Creek resident Hank Osborne, an IT professional who works for the federal government and writes a blog, said some of his peers in the Charleston area are hoping that Google's reputation for good salaries and benefits will put pressure on other IT employers to improve their pay and perks.

Osborne added that some people he has talked to may apply for jobs at Google as the planned data center is built. "There is rumbling among my IT friends who want to polish up their resumes and give it a shot," he said.

Goose Creek itself "is a town without a Main Street," Osborne said. But the government is a major employer there, and Osborne said that there is plenty of IT talent overall in the area around Goose Creek, which is only about 25 miles from downtown Charleston.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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