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From big oil to big wave
The data centres at the heart of the global Internet may soon all be off-grid. Google has filed a patent for a datacentre that uses wave motion to power on-board computers and the ocean’s water to cool them

The search giant has filed a patent for a ‘floating datacentre’ that uses wave motion to power on-board computers and the ocean’s water to cool them.

The patent was submitted in February last year but was spotted in the US Patent amp; Trademark office’s electronic filings and posted at Slashdot on Saturday.

The system Google engineers sketch out is a self-powered datacentre placed three to seven miles offshore. Standard shipping containers would house racks of computers that could be transported by truck and placed onto a boat by crane.

A wave-power generator would be the primary source of electricity. But wind turbines could be used to, for example, run water pumps and a tidal power generator could be used in rivers.

The patent specifies the use of a so-called Pelamis machine, which uses pontoons with pumps to convert wave motion into electricity. A British company, Pelamis Wave Power, is operating a prototype in Scotland and intends to install one off Portugal.

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Google engineers calculate that an array of pontoons spread over a square kilometre could produce 30 megawatts of electricity, enough to operate a single system.

Also envisioned is equipment to use the direct current electricity to run DC-capable computers, which some people consider more energy-efficient than using alternating current.

Server makers and datacentre operators are already circulating water to cool computing gear. Google’s patent application envisions using the ocean to act as a giant heat sink, cooling computers through seawater-freshwater heat exchangers.

For the crew and operating staff, there could be living quarters and, potentially, a helipad to get there.

Seeking fortunes at sea

With the rising cost of electricity and concerns over the environment, getting cheaper and cleaner forms of electricity is a big concern for datacentre operators.

Google argues that floating datacentres offer other advantages, such as placing computing closer to consumers, cutting down on transmission distances.

Also, transient needs for computing power may arise in a particular area. For example, a military presence may be needed in an area, a natural disaster may bring a need for computing or telecommunication presence in an area until the natural infrastructure can be repaired or rebuilt, according to the patent application.

Google is not the only company to envision modular, container-based datacentres or even floating datacentres.

A San Francisco company, International Data Security (IDS), plans to pack discarded cargo ships with computing equipment.

The company intends to have its datacentre ships placed near urban centres and have one operating by the third quarter of this year.

According an IDS company blog, the primary motivation for IDS’s floating datacentre is the higher cost of building a land-based facility, the resistance to earthquakes and other natural disasters, and the potential to tap water cooling.

It seems [Google’s] plan is slightly different than IDS; IDS floating datacentres will be anchored in port the majority of the time, whereas Google’s will be positioned out at sea, according to a company blog post on Saturday.

The financial model of operating a datacentre at sea may be the most clever aspect to the patent application, argues Larry Dignan, editor-in-chief at ZDNet. In theory, a floating datacentre would not have to pay any property taxes, he said.

Rich Miller at Data Center Knowledge said the Google plan could invoke different legal definitions of territory boundaries.

The offshore location also raises interesting questions about jurisdiction, and which laws would govern the handling of any consumer data managed from the floating datacentres. US territorial waters typically extend 12 nautical miles, but other nations’ claims range from three miles [Singapore] to 200 miles, Miller wrote.

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