Data center porn

What did John Foley, an Information Week editor, do on his summer vacation? He burnished his geek cred by heading off to The Dalles, Oregon, to hike around Google’s mammoth new data center. And he has a stack of snapshots to prove it. [UPDATE: Here's another set of photos, from when the center was under construction.]

Foley didn’t actually get inside the compound, but two reporters from The Dalles Chronicle did manage to slip inside the chain-link fence last month. After signing a non-disclosure agreement, they were given a tour of the data center by the plant’s manager, Ken Patchett. They report: “Though we saw only some open areas and the interiors of the security building and the cafeteria building, they were quietly comfortable without posh ostentation. Facilities are what you might expect might be provided by a kindly uncle with a soft spot for good food and employee comfort.” They discovered “a pile of Super Soakers just outside the cafeteria” – part of the company’s sophisticated server-cooling system, perhaps?

In an interview with the reporters, Patchett said that Google is learning the importance of “transparency” and is becoming less secretive about its operations. There are limits to the new openness, however:

Patchett addressed an area of puzzlement for some local people: Google’s unwillingness to divulge the number of employees in The Dalles. “How would that give Google’s competitors an advantage?” we asked him. “It’s an extremely competitive industry we’re in,” he said. “The ability to determine how some things are done within the Internet space may also be determined by the number of people it takes to operate a particular facility. So when we talk about how much capacity we have to process the information, that is what’s valuable to our competitors; how fast and how well do we process our information. Some piece of that may able to be derived by the number of people it takes to actually run and support that.”

Patchett goes on to describe the many community-service projects that Google employees are involved in around The Dalles, from wiring an outdoor stage to lending IT support to the fire department. One activity, though, strikes me as slightly troubling: “Google volunteers also ‘weed the shelves’ at the library every couple of weeks.” Hmmm.

7 Comments

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7 Responses to Data center porn

  1. Google reminds me a lot of Netscape cira 1995: catered gourmet lunches and take your pet to work. It had a sprawing Silicon Valley campus and was hiring like mad: now its just a few offices at AOL in New York. Seems to me when you when you skip the hype, the core business of Google, a seach engine service, is insignificant compared to it over hyped stock value. The question I have is: Are these scattered “haunted” data centers really necessary for its core business? Is Google about to shift into some fantastic new technological/business paradigm or are are we just looking at repackaging 30+ old technology with the financial backers waiting for the right time to “blow it out” and cash in before the hype crashes? Only the spooks know for sure!

  2. Tony Healy

    I suspect Google’s secrecy relates to the generous tax and other incentives it gouges from regional legislatures in return for siting in those regions. Part of Google’s sales pitch is the number of high tech jobs it will bring to the area.

    Unfortunately regional politicians don’t understand that most of the jobs are low level building infrastructure management, not high tech. The sophisticated parts of running a data centres can be done from Mountain View.

    For this reason, Google doesn’t want to disclose specific details about staffing.

  3. The sophisticated parts of running a data centres can be done from Mountain View.

    Until that connection is severed. Google may well manage these barely-if-at-all-profitable data centers in the way you describe but, if so, they’re being foolish.

    -t

  4. stephen

    I suspect that when Google files the requisite paperwork for its payroll (and pays the requisite payroll taxes) the states and municipalities will be well aware of the staffing and pay scales at this facility. How many one employs and how much one pays is hardly a ‘secret’ kept from government authorities, unless one illegally pays everyone ‘off the books.’

  5. Tony Healy

    Tax records are confidential. They’re usually not shared with other departments such as regional development groups, and certainly not provided to the media or opposition politicians, who would have an incentive to highlight discrepancies. For the government itself, which provided the tax and other incentives, there is little to be gained in exposing any shortcomings in Google staffing. Google wins.

  6. Thanks for this little bit of geek good stuff. I’ve blogged about it over at ZDNet:

    http://blogs.zdnet.com/projectfailures/?p=371

    Michael Krigsman

    http://projectfailures.com

  7. “over hyped stock value.”

    Alas hype has a real value: the best way it was put was in Keynes’ _General Theory_, where he details how knowing that a stock will be hyped allows you to buy it low and sell it high, making real money. Internet services, because they are basically standards do something even more surprising: if many people use Skype, or Facebook, then it becomes a de facto standard of communication, and rakes in billions of users and the associated profit. Therefore, if several companies offer the same service, the hyped one *is* the winning one — a self-fulfilling prophecy, in a way. Similarly, if Google is a hyped brand, they can get hold of users, coders, advertising money and remain a leading service. If no one dares to challenge the king, his power grows.

    Regarding personnel, I personally did similar analysis of competitors and I can tell you they are information you can infer (though generally poor, and less insightful then what you would expect). I don’t know who would use such an insight, but it makes sense.

    About the jobs, even if they are low-tech, they can send a powerful message to investors: once again, the hype is real money for the locals; “We can’t tell you who they are, but they are a very well-known and wealthy Internet company, with bright colours, free meals and a bring-your-dog-at-work policy” (all you can see from living next to them) sounds better then “No one would take a chance in this crappy Midwest town”. Keeping mum about what they actually do helps the hype, and was probably a request of the local politicians who needed the mystery more the jobs.