Google’s mystery barges

Secret project turns out to be floating marketing centre

For two weeks now, a story has been developing that seems more like the ominous beginning of a science fiction novel than genuine news. On Oct. 25, the technology news website CNET reported on a floating barge that had been spotted off Treasure Island, a former U.S. Navy base in the San Francisco bay. On the barge is a four-storey building constructed from welded-together shipping containers, and the nearby hangar where the structure was apparently put together is surrounded by a security fence and aggressively watched by private security guards.

The barge is one of four registered to a holding company called By and Large LLC (the name is probably a reference to Buy n Large, the fictional megacorporation from the Pixar film WALL-E). CNET’s reporters were able to connect By and Large to Google through the real estate agent that oversaw the rental of the hangar.

But what does Google want with a bunch of boxes on a boat? The CNET article pointed to a patent granted to Google in 2009 for a water-based data centre that would use wave-generated power and take advantage of the sea as a heat sink. Experts consulted by CNET confirmed that this is a possibility – there are many advantages to a floating data centre, not the least of which being the free clean power and cheap cooling.

Needless to say, Google has declined to comment on any of this.

Later, another one of By and Large’s barges surfaced off the U.S. East Coast, near Portland, Maine, with a similar structure on it. A third barge has been photographed in the San Francisco bay without any structure built on top of it. The fourth is unaccounted for.

The statements by government and U.S. Coast Guard officials were confusing. A Coast Guard spokesman confirmed Google’s connection to the barges. Later the same day, a different spokesman said the Coast Guard would neither confirm nor deny that Google is involved with the barges.

Last Thursday, the mystery of the barges was finally put to rest when KPIX 5, a local cable affiliate in San Francisco, reported that a source who had been on board the barge described it as a luxury showroom with a party deck intended to hawk the Google Glass and other Google hardware to potential clients, confirming some earlier speculations.