A West Coast investigation could provide clues about the mystery barge in Portland

In case you missed it, the tech website C|Net published an interesting investigation today into a top secret project Senior Writer Daniel Terdiman believes is being undertaken by Google in San Francisco Bay.

The oddly industrial, square-shaped thing floating out there between ‘Frisco and Oakland, Terdiman writes, is likely a floating data center for the computer giant.

(BDN photo by Seth Koenig)

It also bears some resemblance to a certain boxy building sitting on a barge by Cianbro’s Rickers Wharf Marine Facility here in Portland, not only for its aesthetics, but for the shroud of secrecy that seems to be covering it.

(The picture to the right is the one in Portland. Click here to see pictures of the one in California.)

Just like what C|Net found when it asked about the floating structure out there, nobody working on the East Coast version will say a word about what this thing is or who is commissioning its construction. Cianbro CEO Peter Vigue told me this month that the project is “very important,” but stressed that he’s “not at liberty to discuss [it] in any detail.”

The mystery building was shipped here from New London, Conn., where it was initially constructed and became a source of great public speculation. The Day newspaper reported on theories that it was everything from a movie set to a floating prison to some kind of U.S. Defense Department project.

But nobody in New London would tell The Day anything concrete, just as nobody in Maine would tell me anything concrete when it made its way up here earlier this month. Sounds like C|Net ran into the same secrecy out in the Golden State.

Here’s what Terdiman writes about the hush-hush project he researched on the West Coast:

Could the structure be a sea-faring data center? One expert who was shown pictures of the structure thinks so, especially because being on a barge provides easy access to a source of cooling, as well as an inexpensive source of power — the sea. And even more tellingly, Google was granted a patent in 2009 for a floating data center, and putting data centers inside shipping containers is already a well-established practice.

Whether the structure is in fact a floating data center is hard to say for sure, of course, since Google’s not talking. But Google, understandably, has a history of putting data centers in places with cheap cooling, as well as undertaking odd and unexpected projects like trying to bring Internet access to developing nations via balloons and blimps.

While Terdiman’s description of the thing floating in San Francisco Bay includes a similar height (four stories) and features (“narrow slits for windows” and “one container that slants to the ground at a 45-degree angle”) to the one in Portland.

Click here to check out Google’s patent for a “water-based data center.”

Strangely, Terdiman’s investigation determined that although the entity leasing space on Treasure Island (the place in the bay where this structure was located) was not Google, it was a limited liability corporation whose contact person had hard-to-find ties to the company. Terdiman also cites a former Google employee, who requested anonymity, who told him “it makes perfect sense” that the massive company would put up a decoy corporation to further veil the secret project.

Terdiman was able to find local cafe workers who said customers coming from the work site used Google credit cards. He even got into a different section of the work site and, when he innocently told a passing worker he was looking for Google there, was given directions that led to a doorway with a security guard and two video cameras. (Naturally, he didn’t get any further.)

When he and a photographer returned a few days later, they were watched by a pair of scouts, including one with binoculars.

Read the full C|Net story here, as it’s very interesting and has many more details and sources than I passed along in this setting.

This whole thing seems a lot like an episode of the X-Files, doesn’t it?

Seth Koenig

About Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.