Hiding in Plain Sight, Google Seeks an Expansion of Power
By JOHN MARKOFF and SAUL HANSELL
Published: June 14, 2006
THE DALLES, Ore., June 8 — On the banks of the windswept Columbia River,
Google is working on a secret weapon in its quest to dominate the next
generation of Internet computing. But it is hard to keep a secret when it is
a computing center as big as two football fields, with twin cooling plants
protruding four stories into the sky.
The complex, sprawling like an information-age factory, heralds a
substantial expansion of a worldwide computing network handling billions of
search queries a day and a growing repertory of other Internet services.
And odd as it may seem, the barren desert land surrounding the Columbia
along the Oregon-Washington border — at the intersection of cheap
electricity and readily accessible data networking — is the backdrop for a
multibillion-dollar face-off among Google, Microsoft and Yahoo that will
determine dominance in the online world in the years ahead.
Microsoft and Yahoo have announced that they are building big data centers
upstream in Wenatchee and Quincy, Wash., 130 miles to the north. But it is a
race in which they are playing catch-up. Google remains far ahead in the
global data-center race, and the scale of its complex here is evidence of
its extraordinary ambition.
Even before the Oregon center comes online, Google has lashed together a
global network of computers — known in the industry as the Googleplex — that
is a singular achievement. "Google has constructed the biggest computer in
the world, and it's a hidden asset," said Danny Hillis, a supercomputing
pioneer and a founder of Applied Minds, a technology consulting firm,
referring to the Googleplex.
The design and even the nature of the Google center in this industrial and
agricultural outpost 80 miles east of Portland has been a closely guarded
corporate secret. "Companies are historically sensitive about where their
operational infrastructure is," acknowledged Urs Holzle, Google's senior
vice president for operations.
Behind the curtain of secrecy, the two buildings here — and a third that
Google has a permit to build — will probably house tens of thousands of
inexpensive processors and disks, held together with Velcro tape in a Google
practice that makes for easy swapping of components. The cooling plants are
essential because of the searing heat produced by so much computing power.
The complex will tap into the region's large surplus of fiber optic
networking, a legacy of the dot-com boom.
The fact that Google is behind the data center, referred to locally as
Project 02, has been reported in the local press. But many officials in The
Dalles, including the city attorney and the city manager, said they could
not comment on the project because they signed confidentiality agreements
with Google last year.
"No one says the 'G' word," said Diane Sherwood, executive director of the
Port of Klickitat, Wash., directly across the river from The Dalles, who is
not bound by such agreements. "It's a little bit like
He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named in Harry Potter."
Local residents are at once enthusiastic and puzzled about their affluent
but secretive new neighbor, a successor to the aluminum manufacturers that
once came seeking the cheap power that flows from the dams holding back the
powerful Columbia. The project has created hundreds of construction jobs,
caused local real estate prices to jump 40 percent and is expected to create
60 to 200 permanent jobs in a town of 12,000 people when the center opens
later this year.
"We're trying to organize our chamber ambassadors to have a ribbon-cutting
ceremony, and they're trying to keep us all away," said Susan Huntington,
executive director of The Dalles Area Chamber of Commerce. "Our two cultures
aren't matching very well."
Culture clashes may be an inevitable byproduct of the urgency with which the
search engine war is being waged.
Google, Microsoft and Yahoo are spending vast sums of capital to build out
their computing capabilities to run both search engines and a variety of Web
services that encompass e-mail, video and music downloads and online
Microsoft stunned analysts last quarter when it announced that it would
spend an unanticipated $2 billion next year, much of it in an effort to
catch up with Google. Google said its own capital expenditures would run to
at least $1.5 billion. Its center here, whose cost is undisclosed, shows
what that money is meant to buy.
Google is known to the world as a search engine, but in many ways it is
foremost an effort to build a network of supercomputers, using the latest
academic research, that can process more data — faster and cheaper — than
"Google wants to raise the barriers to entry by competitors by making the
baseline service very expensive," said Brian Reid, a former Google executive
who is now director of engineering at the Internet Systems Consortium in
Redwood City, Calif.
The rate at which the Google computing system has grown is as remarkable as
its size. In March 2001, when the company was serving about 70 million Web
pages daily, it had 8,000 computers, according to a Microsoft researcher
granted anonymity to talk about a detailed tour he was given at one of
Google's Silicon Valley computing centers. By 2003 the number had grown to
Today even the closest Google watchers have lost precise count of how big
the system is. The best guess is that Google now has more than 450,000
servers spread over at least 25 locations around the world. The company has
major operations in Ireland, and a big computing center has recently been
completed in Atlanta. Connecting these centers is a high-capacity fiber
optic network that the company has assembled over the last few years.
Google has found that for search engines, every millisecond longer it takes
to give users their results leads to lower satisfaction. So the speed of
light ends up being a constraint, and the company wants to put significant
processing power close to all of its users.
Microsoft's Internet computing effort is currently based on 200,000 servers,
and the company expects that number to grow to 800,000 by 2011 under its
most aggressive forecast, according to a company document.
Computer scientists and computer networking experts caution that it is
impossible to compare the two companies' efforts directly. Yet it is the way
in which Google has built its globally distributed network that illustrates
the daunting task of its competitors in catching up.
"Google is like the Borg," said Milo Medin, a computer networking expert who
was a founder of the 1990's online service @Home, referring to the robotic
species on "Star Trek" that was forcibly assembled from millions of species
and computer components. "I know of no other carrier or enterprise that
distributes applications on top of their computing resource as effectively
Google's inclination to secrecy began in its days as a private company in an
effort to keep its rivals from determining the profits it was making from
Web search advertising. But its culture of secrecy has grown to pervade
virtually all of its dealings with the news media and even its business
In the end, of course, corporate secrets have a short shelf life in a search
engine age. Entering "Dalles Google" as a Google query turns up plenty of
revealing results. But Google Earth, the satellite mapping service, like its
rivals, so far shows the 30-acre parcel here quite undeveloped.
John Markoff reported from The Dalles, Ore., for this article and Saul
Hansell from New York.