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Google's Rapid Growth and Green IT

by Shaleem Hosein

Google continues to remain one of the most interesting and not surprisingly, secretive technology companies in the world. Their rapid expansion, together with their goal to maintain as small a carbon footprint as possible ("Green IT," as Gartner calls it), is as fascinating as it is challenging.

Back in March 2001, Google had about 8,000 servers at four server farms. In January 2005, Google told the CBS television show 60 Minutes they had around 100,000 servers. Estimates for 2006 indicate they had 450,000 servers located in 25 global datacenters. Last year, it was estimated that they had around 500,000 servers spread over 60 datacenters. There are five new U.S. datacenters under construction and with around 8,000 servers each, they could have around 550,000 servers in 2008. They also buy 10,000 servers a month. When one fails, instead of repairing it, they discard it and plug in another one.

According to Wikipedia, "The size of Google's search system is presently unknown; the best estimates place the total number of the company's servers at 450,000, spread over twenty five locations throughout the world, including major operations centers in Dublin (European Operations Headquarters) and Atlanta, Georgia. Google is also in the process of constructing a major operations center in The Dalles, Oregon, on the banks of the Columbia River."

In June of 2006, the New York Times reported that the Oregon site is known locally as Project 02 and it was selected due to the reliable availability of electricity from the nearby Dalles dam and the Celilo Converter Station, as well as abundant fibre optic cable left over from the excessive rollout during the dot com boom. The building is expected to be the size of two football fields, and has not only created hundreds of construction jobs, but the surrounding real estate values have increased by 40%. The cooling towers will be four stories high. The server farm will create between 60 and 200 jobs in the town of 12,000 people.

Google's datacenter in Dalles, Oregon, is about a mile away from the Dalles Dam. In the old days, as someone recently pointed out, aluminium smelting companies tried to locate their operations near hydro electric dams. Now we're seeing the same happening with Google's datacenters. Google's corporate philosophy also includes a strong environmental bent, and their charitable arm supports such initiatives. Not surprisingly, they have constructed a datacenter powered by a wind farm in the Netherlands, with another one to be built in Council Bluffs, Iowa. The $600 million project will eventually employ 200 people and should be fully operational by 2009. While Google won't talk about it very much, so they don't give away the actual size of their operations, they have a goal to be carbon neutral in 2008.

According to the article "Some of Google's Secret to Success," in ITBusinessedge.com from July, 2007, Google started with racks of motherboards, mounted four to a shelf on corkboard, with cheap generic hard drives densely packed together like "blade servers before there were blade servers," according to one Google executive. Today, they can send prefabricated datacenters anywhere in the world by packing them into standard 20- or 40-foot shipping containers. In fact, last year they received a patent for the concept called "Modular Data Centers," something they applied for back in 2003 despite possible prior art.

At a January, 2008, dinner meeting for the Winnipeg section of the Canadian Information Processing Society, speaker Stephen Kleynhans, Vice President Research at Gartner Inc., the leading IT research and advisory firm in the US, said that Google needed access to power and cooling and that there are also unsubstantiated discussions going around that they are considering locating server farms up north to take advantage of the cooler temperatures. Also, data transmission does not diminish over long distances on power lines, but power does. The power bill will be lower if you build the server farms up north where it's naturally colder instead of concentrating on power sources like hydro dams or wind farms. The existing power lines can be used to move the data to major communication hubs.

A few years ago, the idea of utilizing power lines to bring broadband Internet to rural populations in the U.S. with the downside of conflicts with amateur radio transmissions was developed. There's little information about this concept that can be "Googled," but one has to wonder if the Internet giant will open datacenters in Manitoba's north someday. The Canadian province has the hydro lines, northern populations to serve as potential employees, and an abundance of colder than average daily ambient weather.

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