Google: The new heavy industry

Harper’s magazine has a great feature in its March issue under the “Annotation” banner: It’s a close-up look at the blueprints for Google’s new server farms in The Dalles, Oregon — the ones that the New York Times wrote about back in 2006. The plans describe three giant buildings of almost 70,000 square feet or so, right beside the Columbia River (where there is a handy hydroelectric dam nearby), although only two of the farms have actually been constructed so far.

Based on industry standards for such farms, Harper’s figures they will use about 500 watts per square foot by 2011, which would mean a total of 103 megawatts, or enough to power a town of about 82,000 homes. The piece also notes that a nearby aluminum smelter that is being torn down used about 85 megawatts, and employed about 500 people. Google estimates it will create between 100 and 200 jobs.

When the New York Times wrote its piece in 2006, Google was estimated to have 25 server farm complexes around the globe, with a total of about 500,000 servers. That was already one of the largest distributed computing clusters in the world. According to Harper’s, current estimates are that it has about twice that many now — which means that its power costs could be as high as $200-million a year.

Cut the power cords that bind you

Is wireless power about to become a reality? It sure sounds that way, according to a piece in Business 2.0 magazine about a company called Powercast, which says it has developed a way of powering devices (albeit fairly low-voltage ones for now) without power cords or bricks. And electronics giant Philips has signed a deal with Powercast to bring its technology to market.

snipshot_d4178gifo0i7.jpgIt may sound incredible — and Ben Metcalfe seems to think it’s an April Fool’s joke come early — but wireless power is not a fantasy. In fact, the eccentric genius Nikolai Tesla, who invented alternating current or AC power, was pretty close to developing wireless power around the turn of the century, but didn’t quite make it — in part because his financial backer, J.P. Morgan, pulled out. It’s possible that his feud with fellow genius Thomas Edison (who favoured direct current power) had something to do with it, but I can’t say for sure.

And there is already what amounts to a wireless-power company, a company called Splashpower.com, which uses adapters that attach to electrical devices, and then charges those devices whenever they are placed on a special mat. But that involves actual contact between the device and the mat — Powercast says it can broadcast power to devices up to six feet away, through relatively small and inexpensive chips the size of a dime.

(in unrelated news, some guy likes to build giant Tesla coils in his garage).

Power to the people, man…

There’s a downside to having the centre of the technology world in a place like Silicon Valley, and that is the need for vast quantities of air-conditioning (not just for the computers, but for the people too). The culprit behind the latest MySpace-crippling power outage in California isn’t clear yet, but power consumption of all kinds is an issue for the entire technology industry, and particularly for data-intensive companies such as Google, which is building giant new server farms on the shores of the Columbia River in Oregon to try and cope with the demands it faces.

According to FON founder Martin Varsavsky, Google co-founder Larry Page said that one of the major hurdles the company faced in its future growth plans was the need for electricity. In a piece I wrote for the Globe and Mail after the Google server story came out, I noted that rising power demands are in many ways the Achilles heel of Web 2.0 — a point that has also made by many others, including Sun CEO and blogger Jonathan Schwartz, who wrote about the pressures that power requirements are placing on businesses.

It’s a problem that is likely to continue, and one that is affecting other business centres too. My solution? Hook all those servers at Google up to stationary bikes at the Googleplex in Mountain View, and have programmers ride them while they’re working. Not only would it produce power, but it would help reduce the expanding waistlines caused by Google’s free-candy policy. For more thoughts, see Rob Hyndman and Mark Evans.

Is quantum mechanics wrong?

Anyone remember “cold fusion?” The Guardian is running a piece about a controversial claim by a Harvard University scientist who says he has developed a power source that is orders of magnitude more powerful than conventional sources — and defies the laws of quantum mechanics: “Randell Mills, a Harvard University medic who also studied electrical engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, claims to have built a prototype power source that generates up to 1,000 times more heat than conventional fuel. Independent scientists claim to have verified the experiments and Dr Mills says that his company, Blacklight Power, has tens of millions of dollars in investment lined up to bring the idea to market. And he claims to be just months away from unveiling his creation. The problem is that according to the rules of quantum mechanics, the physics that governs the behaviour of atoms, the idea is theoretically impossible.”

The ever-watchful gang over at slashdot.org note that Dr. Mills has been making these claims for some time: there’s a Reuters story from 1997, and a Village Voice story from 1999 which led to more skeptical comments on slashdot, and there is also a long entry in Wikipedia.org about Dr. Mills’ so-called “hydrino” theory. Still, the debate continues.