Servers at Sea

Google has filed a patent for what the New York Times describes as “mobile data center platforms out at sea.”

[Image: A view of the R/P FLIP ship, which has absolutely nothing to do with Google’s offshore server plan; it just looks cool and seems appropriate. Image altered by Alexander Trevi].

This means “stacking containers filled with servers, storage systems and networking gear on barges or other platforms.” These would be “‘crane-removable’ data center modules on ships.” From the actual patent application:

In general, computing centers are located on a ship or ships, which are then anchored in a water body from which energy from natural motion of the water may be captured, and turned into electricity and/or pumping power for cooling pumps to carry heat away from computers in the data center.

Perhaps unsurprisingly in this era of alternative energy sources, “Google has theorized about powering these ocean data centers with energy gained just from water splashing against the side of the barges.”

[Image: From Google’s patent application for servers at sea; via the New York Times].

I have to assume, then, that we’re moving ever closer to true deep-water city-states – only they won’t be libertarian ocean-going homesteads, after all, they’ll be distributed networks of supercomputing villages afloat on, and drawing power from, the tides.
Two weeks ago, meanwhile, the NYTimes also looked at the privatization of civic infrastructure – but perhaps Google’s literally offshore experiment in information technology implies a coming world of privatized services at sea.
A fleet of tankers shows up in a nearby port one day… and suddenly your city has telephone services. It’s Archigram‘s instant city all over again, but on the level of specific – and highly billable – urban amenities.
The services show up. The network takes over.
Your city will never be the same.

[Image: The Instant City at work; diagrams by Peter Cook/Archigram. An original interview with Peter Cook appears in the forthcoming BLDGBLOG Book].

I’m further reminded of the five-week-long power outage that struck Auckland, New Zealand, just slightly more than ten years ago. Peter Gutmann describes some of the possible ship-borne solutions to that city’s loss of electricity:

Apparently the idea of moving ships from the naval base on the other side of the harbour across to the Auckland waterfront to act as floating generators was considered, but there are problems with feeding the power from the ships to the city. There’s also the problem that there’s nothing around which can generate even a fraction of the power required. Another idea which was considered is using one of the Cook Straight ferries (which could in theory provide around 10MW) as a floating generator (the term “ferry” is a considerable understatement). Currently a couple of waterfront businesses are being run with power from ships acting as floating generators, and when both repaired cables failed their testing, Mercury finally brought in a diesel-electric trans-Tasman freighter, the Union Rotorua, to act as a 12MW floating generator, and is considering bringing in another ship or installing generators on barges.

In any case, the seafaring future of civic infrastructure is something we’ll have to keep our eyes on. Entire new untold types of urban experience could be yours the minute that strange shape on the horizon comes in to dock.

(Thanks, Nicky!)

14 thoughts on “Servers at Sea”

  1. Hi Geoff. Not to put a dampener on the architectural coolness of this (great image), but I wonder at how it also better positions Google to skirt jurisdictional issues in relation to information, privacy, surveillance, and the like.

    Placing data havens at sea, for example, would effectively exempt Google from some of the constraints it faces when those facilities are based within territorial jurisdictions.

    What about servers, then? Servers and data havens aren’t necessarily the same thing (or the former might not necessarily be used as the latter, at any rate), but it’s also not much of a stretch to see where this could lead (or what’s motivating Google)…

    None of which is necessarily bad, either. Just speculating.

  2. Apparently Westinghouse Electric had plans to build a similar barge to power US Atlantic coastal towns in the 70s.

    This story was wonderfully chronicled by John McPhee in “The Atlantic Generating Station” (found in the volume Giving Good Weight).

  3. Interesting that Google appears interested in this. An offshore data haven like this has already been created on Sealand. It was attractive to some people because of the different (or lack of) laws governing the use of the computers and data there.

  4. Hi

    This is my first comment on your blog . I think it sounds great that it is possible to power these floating villages from the tides. I wonder if the technology from this can be harnessed more to power ships. Afterall, almost everything we eat, wear or use has been shipped around the world in large containers. If they were powered by the motion of the tides, with reduced carbon footprint, then we’re talking.

  5. y.e. vulva, I love that water computer! And, Tim Quinn, it’s nice to see you here in this thread.

    Here’s to the super-water-googleizer.

    So it’s been an extremely busy week, and I’ve been a little off the radar here (sorry!), but I think any speculation as to Google’s ultimate political goal in seeking offshore – read: semi-sovereign – data points is worthwhile. Is this the mobile information infrastructure of the 21st century – or some other, possibly untrustworthy attempt at post-national secession?

    Or just something calling out for the intervention of an architect: designing the spaces of these future offshore server farms?

  6. So, if a tanker hits this and sends it to the bottom of the ocean, does that mean my mail goes down for the day? Bah!

  7. It's all well and good having Google place it's hosting servers in international waters to avoid restrictions placed on it by certain jurisdictions.
    As for the "patenting" of the platforms, I fail to see how this will prevent other groups from placing identical platforms in international waters where they to can avoid the specter of Intellectual Property.

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