There was some interesting news this weekend regarding possible plans for floating Google datacenters. At first glance, this looks remarkably similar to a proposal by IDS. For those of you that missed the news about them earlier this year, they plan to convert old freight ships into data centers. These ships would be docked in major ports around the world, and use sea water for cooling.

While they list many advantages, there are some weak points in their plans, such as:

  • The fact that sea water tends to cause corrosion and is an excellent conductor, which means you’d normally want to keep it as far away from your servers as possible
  • Ships are very hard to keep secure, since you can access them from both above and below the water. Docking them in a busy port would make this even harder
  • I expect to see a lot of opposition from environment protection groups. Pumping several megawatts of heat into a port, which is essentially a small lake, will have some nasty effects on marine life
  • Ships tend to need lots of maintenance, and for some of that it’s necessary to move the ship to a dry dock. That would remove the sea water cooling option, so these data centers would either be temporary or need traditional cooling equipment as a backup, removing much of the cost savings

Google’s proposal is a little different:

  • Ships would be located several miles offshore. Depending on how far these are from the coastline, this might be in international waters; the advantage of this might be that the data centers would not have to pay some taxes. Note that they might not be excempt from all¬†taxes, since a ship is technically under the jurisdiction of it’s home port.¬†
  • On one hand, moving a ship offshore would make it an easier target for terrorists; on the other hand on the open seas it’s easier to guard against intruders
  • Google wants to use Pelamis wave energy generators, which would mean that these data centers would be completely independent units. They’d only require an internet connection; since Google is already investing massive amounts of money in underseas cables, that is easy to arrange. Alternatively, they might position the ships closer to shore and use free space optics links to mainland facilities.
Pelamis wave power generator
Pelamis wave power generator

I think this is a very interesting idea, but not for the faint of heart. These data centers are only interesting for companies that can afford to lose entire data centers at a time without interrupting their operations. Google is an expert at this; it might also be an interesting alternative for companies with large compute jobs. Some excellent examples can be found in the oil industry, where some companies have huge datacenters for geophysical calculations. These might easily anchor a floating data center near an oil platform.

I also noticed a brilliant idea in the comments of the /. article about this:

Why not just have a submersible barge, and drop down to the ocean floor.

Makes it easy to moor. Fiber just lays on the ocean floor. Improved Security, and the water will be much cooler. Sort of a barge made like a giant heatsink. Mount the processors to the hull.

When the barge looses enough hardware, just raise it back up, service it and drop it back down.

Also reduced problems with being pitched around causing lost disk drives. Hurricanes? No problem.