Google may be building a secret data center on a barge currently floating in San Francisco Bay, CNET’s Daniel Terdiman reports in a convincing, though still circumstantial, article. If true, it would represent the Internet giant’s latest attempt to translate some of its more far-fetched ideas—in this case, for an environmentally friendly sea-powered (and, most likely, sea-cooled) data center—into reality.

What we know is that some kind of a massive project is taking shape within a four-story-tall structure on a barge moored at Treasure Island, midway between San Francisco and Oakland. Terdiman pulled together information from lease agreements, LinkedIn profiles, interviews with locals and some old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting to conclude that Google is almost certainly behind the effort. (Go on—read the whole thing.)

A floating data center offers several possible advantages over land-based counterparts. For one thing, it’s theoretically possible to power it by generating electricity from wave motion—about as clean a source of energy as you can imagine. Cold sea water also holds potential as a coolant, an important factor given that data centers generate a lot of heat. (Although salt water can also easily corrode metal and delicate equipment, so it’s not necessarily ideal, either.)

It’s also not immediately clear how data would move on and off a data-center barge. Satellite connections are likely far too slow to serve data center needs.

Google patented a “water-based data center” in 2009, describing it this way:

A system includes a floating platform-mounted computer data center comprising a plurality of computing units, a sea-based electrical generator in electrical connection with the plurality of computing units, and one or more sea-water cooling units for providing cooling to the plurality of computing units.

I’ve pinged Google for comment, and I’ll update if I hear back.

Image via U.S. patent 7,525,207

david hamilton