Data mine

Google's search engine superiority is powered in part by a billion-dollar data center in Lenoir.

By Edward Martin

Google Inc. doesn’t relinquish many of its data centers’ secrets, but it has revealed some. Others have leaked out. The tech giant’s big-data dozen handle more than 3 billion “googles” a day, their servers responding 200,000 times faster than a home Internet connection. “Capital of North C ... ,” someone types, “ … Raleigh,” they answer. A desktop computer stores about a terabyte of data. There are 1,024 terabytes in a petabyte. A petabyte of songs would play for more than 2,000 years on an MP3 player. The combined memory of Google’s data centers is measured in petaflops, one of which equals 1 quadrillion calculations per second. That’s 15 zeros.

In 2007, Mountain View, Calif.-based Google built a $600 million data center in Lenoir — for which it could get more than $260 million in tax incentives over 30 years — and doubled its investment at the 215-acre property last year. It was not one of the city’s top 20 employers last fiscal year, according to Lenoir’s annual report, but it has about 150 workers who mend and care for about 50,000 servers. They aren’t the most advanced — the Tianhe-2 supercomputer in China can handle 33.9 petaflops — but their muscle comes via teamwork. They are strung together, a tactic called commodity computing, to increase power exponentially while managing costs incrementally.

So much thinking makes even servers burn. That’s why much of the investment in the Lenoir data center isn’t in computers. Miles of pipes connecting valves, water tanks, cooling towers and condensers work together to keep the servers comfortably cool. The company won’t reveal how much electricity the center consumes, but a federal study estimates similar ones use as much power as a city of 20,000. Lenoir has about 19,000 residents.

Google tries to assuage environmentalists by stretching every kilowatt. “We’re proud that we’ve got some of the most-efficient data centers in the world,” says Michael Terrell, head of Google’s energy-policy division. “They’re 50% more efficient than the typical industry data center.” Efficiency is measured by power-usage effectiveness, a ratio between power entering a data center and power used in computing. The perfect score is 1.0, which Google would achieve if every electron answered queries and handled messages for its 425 million gmail users rather than a portion of it powering the cooling and distribution equipment. A January 2013 survey of large North American companies by San Francisco-based Digital Realty Trust Inc. — which owns, develops and operates data centers — reported an average PUE of 2.9. The average for all of Google’s data centers was 1.1 during the fourth quarter of 2013. The company is working with Charlotte-based Duke Energy Corp. to buy only renewable energy, even though it may be more expensive.

Moore’s law holds that the world’s computing capacity doubles every two years. How many petaflops will be needed in 24 months? Google is already working on ways for the Lenoir data center to help cover the added zeros.