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Google Patents Shipping-Container Data Centers 207

theodp writes "Two years ago, Robert X. Cringely wrote that Google was experimenting with portable data centers built in standard shipping containers. The idea, Cringely explained, wasn't new and wasn't even Google's, backing up his claim with a link to an Internet-Archive-in-a-Shipping-Container presentation (PDF, dated 11-8-2003) that was reportedly pitched to Larry Page. Google filed for a patent on essentially the same concept on 12-30-2003. And on Tuesday, the USPTO issued the search giant a patent for Modular Data Centers housed in shipping containers, which Google curiously notes facilitate 'rapid and easy relocation to another site depending on changing economic factors'. That's a statement that may make those tax-abating NC officials a tad uneasy."
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Google Patents Shipping-Container Data Centers

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  • Oops! (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Cap'nPedro ( 987782 ) on Tuesday October 09, 2007 @12:45PM (#20913369)
    This doesn't look good for Sun's Blackbox [] project.
    • by hb253 ( 764272 )
      Indeed, I read about Sun's project in a Scientific American article a few months back.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by locokamil ( 850008 )
      I'm no expert on patent law, so be gentle.

      Doesn't the existence of Blackbox imply prior art for Google's patent?
      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by corsec67 ( 627446 )
        It depends on when Sun started doing the Blackbox project, and the exact wording of the patent.
        If Sun started in, say, 2000 (I don't know when they did start) then yes, it could be prior art depending on what the patent covers exactly.
        But, if the patent covers something a bit more specific than "computers hooked up in a shipping crate" then it is possible that black box doesn't infringe on this patent, and isn't prior art.

        (IANAL, so copious amounts of sodium chloride recommended with this post.)
        • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

          by Anonymous Coward
          Well, looking at google's claims it seems to be more to do with the particular arrangement of the cooling system rather than the act of putting a data center in a box. In fact the pdf referred to in the summary is even cited. So, the examiner was aware of it and considered the application to be inventive over it.
    • Re:Oops! (Score:5, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday October 09, 2007 @12:59PM (#20913593)
      I wouldn't claim to possess the insight -- and, I daresay, genius -- required to imagine putting computers in a shipping container.

      Nonetheless, I can humbly state that I'm something of an inventor myself. For the past several years, I've been developing a concept which involves assembling computers in 4-foot by 6-foot containers. I know, it sounds incredible, but it is actually possible (despite the intuitive difficulty).

      I'm looking to monetize the idea, so if you're interested please contact me about patent licensing and such.

      Dr. Hansel Hanselsonson, PhD
      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by PCM2 ( 4486 )

        I wouldn't claim to possess the insight -- and, I daresay, genius -- required to imagine putting computers in a shipping container.

        I know it's popular sentiment on Slashdot to put down anybody who claims any kind of intellectual property rights, but there's nothing in the patent codes that requires an invention to be a work of genius.

        Then again, based on your sarcasm I presume you don't believe this to be a work of genius. You (modestly) admit that you are not a genius. You should be in the running, th

    • copied and pasted from wikipedia:

      Robert X. Cringely writing about Google-Mart on November 17th, 2005: "There, in a secret area off-limits even to regular GoogleFolk, is a shipping container. But it isn't just any shipping container. This shipping container is a prototype data center. [..] Didn't Sun recently establish some kind of partnership with Google?"
  • Sun Blackbox? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by toby ( 759 ) * on Tuesday October 09, 2007 @12:45PM (#20913373) Homepage Journal
    That's not going to make Sun very [] happy. []
    • by mosch ( 204 )
      I doubt this patent will be enforced in any meaningful way. The Sun Blackbox program you linked to was started about 15 years ago, if my memory serves correctly.

      Maybe some minor aspect will get through, but "data center in a box" is old news.
    • Sun actually has a more elegant solution than what Google's patent proposes; they fit the air conditioning system in the container itself (sans chilled water plant). Google's sounds more like what I would have done (and is sitting on the whiteboard in the coference room next door right now from a discussion yesterday), although they are looking to do a phase-change cooling solution where I would have used water for improved efficiency.

      Sun really did create a beautiful solution with their approach. There m
  • Evil (Score:5, Insightful)

    by DoofusOfDeath ( 636671 ) on Tuesday October 09, 2007 @12:49PM (#20913429)
    I know this popped into lots of peoples' minds, but...

    Could someone please remind me how patenting something obvious is not evil?

    Basically it reduces the freedom of all law-abiding citizens to do something that's fairly obvious.
    • Re:Evil (Score:5, Insightful)

      by XenoPhage ( 242134 ) on Tuesday October 09, 2007 @12:54PM (#20913515) Homepage
      Patenting protects their investment. That said, just because you hold a patent doesn't obligate you to use it in an evil way. In fact, many people patent things merely to ensure that no one else patents the idea and uses the patent to extort money.

      Not everyone is evil. That said, how evil Google themselves are remains to be seen. I'm kind of on the fence at this point...
      • Except that you're not supposed to be allowed to patent obvious things. We buy road cases from Quantum Scientific which are shocked mounted and water proof. I have a 30TB SAN, 12 servers, routing and switching equipment, and battery backup power for about an hour in our road cases. That's on top of the 100 or so cameras we bring with us and all the phones we have specialized containers for shipping. Perhaps we should declare prior art? Except for the fact that the military does this all the time and so do A
        • Even better prior art would be the fact that the US Military, at least, has been building data centers into shipping containers for years. Many the time have I worked out of a conex box. Heck, the larger container has been used as well - pull up, drop it down, winch out the AC units to free up room to walk around inside, hook up power, feed the cables into it to hook up to the patch panels and you're ready to rock.
          • Were they aircooled Hitachi mainframes running CICS? IIRC some such machines - which can emulate an IBM 30xx - were used during Operation Desert Shield.
          • we had a NCR 500 in a semi trailer that read punch cards and wrote to magnetically striped ledger cards
        • Except that you're not supposed to be allowed to patent obvious things.

          I've never quite understood what the definition of "obvious" was in patent law. I'm reminded of how Sherlock Holmes would explain his subtle train of reasoning to a mystified Dr. Watson. As soon as Holmes finished his explanation, Watson's mystification would change to complacency, and he'd say, "Well, now that you explain it, it's obvious what happened."

          There's all kinds of stuff that we now take for granted that used to be under pate

          • Except that there is 30 years of readily accessible prior art for this. Traveling data centers are not a new concept. Go to any large convention. A single Google search or MSN or whatever search engine of choice would reveal that it is obvious. I'd say the definition of obvious things at least should be information that is readily accessible. Unfortunately you have a point in that obvious is not defined specifically in patent law so perhaps that is something we need to address.

            For a broader perspective an

            • by fm6 ( 162816 )
              I don't know if there was prior art or not. But if you're going to argue that there was, maybe you should do it in response to a post that argues there wasn't.
      • by OmniGeek ( 72743 ) on Tuesday October 09, 2007 @01:40PM (#20914273)
        If Google wanted to keep from being attacked by another party for using this idea, they could simply (and cheaply!) publish an article describing every facet of the idea the patent application covers (which, after all, is what happens when you file a patent application; when the patent is granted, the idea is published).

        Publication of the idea makes it unpatentable "prior art;" once published, the idea can never be patented by anyone. So, if Google's intent were strictly defensive, to prevent someone else from patenting the idea and using it against them, publication would suffice. Thus, the idea that they are "merely protecting themselves" is a bit less persuasive. Of course, there are other reasons for patenting something; looks good on the resume, provides ammunition for cross-licensing battles, and so on, but most of them involve "offense" rather than "defense."

        This is not to say that Google has evil intent, just to point out that preemptively patenting something isn't the only way to avoid patent exposure.
        • by ivan256 ( 17499 )

          If Google wanted to keep from being attacked by another party for using this idea, they could simply (and cheaply!) publish an article describing every facet of the idea the patent application covers (which, after all, is what happens when you file a patent application; when the patent is granted, the idea is published).

          That's a fine theory, assuming that the patent office stops granting patents (like this one) with previously published prior art.

          In reality, publishing only gives you some ground to stand

        • by someone1234 ( 830754 ) on Tuesday October 09, 2007 @02:20PM (#20914953)
          But... Wasn't this published before? Apparently the fact it was published before didn't deter Google or the USPTO to agree on the patent.
          I think it is safer to have a patent which you don't intend to use than a mere publication which might be ignored.
        • A) The patent office suck at finding publications other than patents. B) The existence of prior art mostly only helps you in litigation, which people prefer to avoid for a number of reasons. C) Publishing is harder than you might think. They can't just put it on their website and say "See, it's published". Even prior art publishing houses like have yet to be tested in court. Peer reviewed journals and conference papers (for big enough conferences) are pretty safe... It has to be published in a plac
        • If Google wanted to keep from being attacked by another party for using this idea, they could simply (and cheaply!) publish an article describing every facet of the idea

          I suspect this is a troll, but I'll bite in case it isn't obvious to people. Publishing is a poor defensive strategy because it tips off your competitors. Were Google to have published the details in 2003, MSFT and everyone else would be able to copy their technology exactly as of that date. As it is, their trade secrets get published

    • Re:Evil (Score:4, Insightful)

      by p0tat03 ( 985078 ) on Tuesday October 09, 2007 @01:09PM (#20913737)
      Most companies, especially software ones, take patents as a defensive measure. Nothing is worse than doing something conceptually simple and then getting sued into the ground by someone who bothered to patent it. Owning obvious patents is the only real solution (at this point in time, until laws change), and in fact may be the least evil way to act. Owning a swathe of obvious patents that the USPTO refuses to overturn, and not enforcing it with suits, is probably protecting all of us.
      • Defensive patents (Score:3, Interesting)

        by mike449 ( 238450 )
        Defensive patents are not used to protect the patented idea. They are usually used as a weapon when the company is sued by a competitor for something completely different. This tactics doesn't work against patent trolls, but works very well against competitors.
        No computer company can touch IBM because of fear of their patents. I think Google is trying to achieve the same status.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      Could someone please remind me how patenting something obvious is not evil?
      When you patent it but allow anyone to use it free of charge, preventing someone else from patenting it and restricting its use.

      I have no idea if that is what's going on, but that answer your question about "how" :)
    • Filing a patent is about the best way possible of establishing prior art. No matter how inept the patent office is, the one place the are guaranteed to check for prior art is in their own system. If you have something you think is obvious, but other people might consider non-obvious, then it can be a lot cheaper to file a patent and then let it lapse in a year or so than to let someone else get the patent and sue you later.

      Of course, if they start firing off lawsuits against anyone who puts a computer in

    • by kwerle ( 39371 )
      IANAL (patent or otherwise), but the description in the patent looks VERY specific.

      This isn't a trailer with a computer in it.
      It isn't a mobile command center.

      What it looks like is (fairly specifically) a box with rackmounts that someone could get into. There are other constraints like size, cooling system details, etc.

      What it looks like to me is that they will start using these, they think it is a clever design, and they might want to sell this specific solution. You would be a fool to come up with a spe
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by king-manic ( 409855 )
      Could someone please remind me how patenting something obvious is not evil?

      Many companies keep a defensive collection of patents. Say AT&T sues Google about some algorithm they patented. Google digs and finds a few AT&T infringes on and presents that. They realize a fight would only benefit lawyers and settle on mutual cross licensing. Sort of a corporate brinkmanship/deterrence.
    • by PCM2 ( 4486 )

      Could someone please remind me how patenting something obvious is not evil?

      Could you please explain to me how this is "obvious"?

      Once somebody invented the internal combustion engine, slapping it onto a wheeled cart probably seemed like a pretty "obvious" choice. Kinda hard to do without a drive train, though.

      Is an Allen wrench "obvious"? A pair of locking pliers? They all seem pretty obvious once somebody invents them. Oh wait! I wonder if that has anything to do with why we have patents...

  • by Franklin Brauner ( 1034220 ) on Tuesday October 09, 2007 @12:50PM (#20913457)
    I wouldn't mind driving off with 5000 Opteron processors. Seriously, there's a downside to portability.
  • by nate nice ( 672391 ) on Tuesday October 09, 2007 @12:54PM (#20913509) Journal
    So if I have a bunch of servers in a trailer and an ethernet cable sticking out of the door, I'm violating this patent?

    I'm sorry, but white trash nerds have been doing this for a long time.
    • So if I have a bunch of servers in a trailer and an ethernet cable sticking out of the door, I'm violating this patent?

      I'm sorry, but white trash nerds have been doing this for a long time.

      Sounds like a new episode of My Name is Earl [].
    • Oh god. They're turning the internet into a big truck.
  • 1967: in the event of nuclear war, arpanet will route around damaged nodes, so that communication remains uninterrupted. nothing can stop us now

    1987: first worm made. internet communication not guaranteed anymore

    2007: in the event of communication problems, one of the world's most powerful companies will mobilize their TPT (trail park technology) army

    2027: warhol virus takes out entire web, needs to rebuilt from scratch with ipv8

    2047: in the event of worldwide internet outage, GoogleMicrosoftApple will deploy nuclear warheads to silence virus spewing nodes. the circle is complete
  • by BiloxiGeek ( 872377 ) * on Tuesday October 09, 2007 @01:00PM (#20913611)
    The military has been building and using that concept for decades. Portable satellite ground stations, portable phone switches, portable power generation, portable communication centers, portable damned near anything else you can think of that would be needed in a theater of operation. All built in a container like structure for easy transportation via land, sea and/or air.
    I worked in one such container that housed a full Digital Subscriber Terminal Equipment (DSTE) suite with a second container of backup equipment while Saudi Arabia in 1986. (oops, that really showed my age.)
    • Exactly - my wife worked on writing software for a ground station when she was with lockheed. It was basically a shipping container like they put on ships, but green and it could be pulled around. Inside was the mission planning software and such. That was around 1999 or 2000.
      • by yppiz ( 574466 ) *
        The US used a system like this for the Nike missile system - the computer, a gigantic analog one, was in a cargo container. I believe this was back in the 1950s.

        Basically, it's just like Google's containerized server concept, except the packets are really, really large and the payload is somewhat more dangerous.

        • SYN

          (not very funny but it's what popped in my head as I pictured it.)
        • by kevinbr ( 689680 )
          My father worked on the Nike system, I would ask him, except he is no longer alive......he as convinced his cancer came from the radar........
        • As an old HAWK guy I thought the same thing but if you actually read the claims and look at the figures and see what they are talking about, (I know about 99% of the people can't even open the images because it take about an hour to find and install the freaking plugin needed) you'll see that its very specific even down to how the connex's are parked on the ground and how the racks are arranged inside
    • How many branches used VINES (omigod, a pun?), and essentially shipped lan-in-a-container systems to the Middle East around that time? I think they shipped everything but water, assuming that if there were users, there would be water. Latrines too.

      This has been done before, and done fairly well. Won't someone please tell the USPTO to knock it off? It isn't funny any more.
    • I certainly I hope that thing was air-conditioned or at least located inside an air-conditioned facility. It would really suck to be sitting out on a tarmac inside a shipping container in the middle of the Arabian desert without air-conditioning. The electronics would probably overheat as well.
      • The shelters often had a better feature than integrated AC.
        The standard HVAC pack ("big standalone external heat pump") used throughout the military has two hoses for inlet and exhaust air. When they break, swapout is easy.

        To add heat and air to anything else, the normal solution is a piece of plywood with two holes. Stick plywood in window or doorway, slide hoses through, and enjoy.

        SeaBox makes lots of ISO shelters. I like 'em, and aspire one day to outfit my two 40' High Cube (9'6" high) shop ISOs to that
    • by chiph ( 523845 )
      You were still using DSTE in 1986?
      I helped remove what I think was the last installation in USAFE in 1984, and replace it with SRT.

      Mmmmm. 512 bits of core memory!

      Chip H.
    • IIRC the DoD didn't shift from CONEX boxen to standard shipping containers until the 90's. It's the latter that is the key innovation.
  • ...Google doesn't read Cringely.

    (I wish they did. the gCube he's written about would be well worth having!)

  • by Nom du Keyboard ( 633989 ) on Tuesday October 09, 2007 @01:06PM (#20913683)

    facilitate 'rapid and easy relocation to another site depending on changing economic factors'.

    Considering the rapid advance of technology, anything that's stood in one place for more than a year or two at most is probably not worth moving. A new one would prove cheaper, faster, at least double the capacity, and all within the same energy budget, or less -- which is what I expect will be the controlling factor for all new data centers.

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Kingrames ( 858416 )
      640 PB should be enough for anybody.
    • I agree. The less specialized the hardware and software that is being mobilized in the shipping container the less worthwhile the idea becomes. It makes sense for the military to package this stuff up because they have high mobility requirements AND they use specialized hardware and software (ruggedized with special enclosures and the like) that doesn't change nearly as often as generic commercial data center equipment does. For example, the artillery computers in the M109A6 "Paladin" [] and the associated cou
    • We are probably approaching the tail of Moore's observation. If this patent is not invalidated, it will expire about the time that semiconductor density progress becomes negligible. So about the time the patent becomes useful, it expires.

      On the other hand, the cost of a new data center will probably become insignificant before that time. So you're right that moving the old center is uneconomical. Unless some applications that require much huger data centers become important, special designs that facilitat

    • Gives you leverage when negotiating tax breaks with the municipality. Traditional theory always has been that work-related taxes fall on property owners in the long term because they can't move their property. Being able to move your server room, as complicated and huge as it is, to another state within a week forces the municipality to give you tax breaks--or else.
  • by saltydog56 ( 1135213 ) on Tuesday October 09, 2007 @01:06PM (#20913687)
    Back in the late 70's I worked with Marine Air Group 24 over at K-Bay, HI and the group's data center was contained in two big metal containers each about the size of a small semi-trailer - when they needed to move they popped them on a trailer, shoved them in the back of a plane, or whatever.

    Each data center was made up of a Univac 1218 processor, an online card reader-punch unit, a drum printer, and a bunch of tape drives.

    Seems like the same concept to me.
    • by Fizzl ( 209397 )
      I would venture to guess that the unit was not primarily used for browsing the web or sending email to relatives?
    • Was the second container for the 16K word memory upgrade?

      Wikipedia shows this model as introduced in 1963 for $400,000 or
      2.5 million in today's dollar. With a price tag like that,
      I'm glad it was still running 10 years later doing whatever it
      was that the marines were using it for.

  • by DigitalReverend ( 901909 ) on Tuesday October 09, 2007 @01:08PM (#20913731)
    MOBIDIC [] was one such project and was a part of Operation FRELOC []. []
  • Who would ever imagine that kuro5hin [] would be useful?
  • I haven't read the patent but I'm sure the U.S. military has plenty of prior art on this topic.
  • Hell, even Hollywood thought of this one [], let alone Uncle Sam and various other private corporations.

    This smacks of 'patent defense' - Theyve got one, so others, (ahem - Sun?), will perhaps prefer horse-trading to frontal assault.

    Still, pretty disappointing from the 'elite brains' @ Google.

  • by TheGratefulNet ( 143330 ) on Tuesday October 09, 2007 @01:23PM (#20913955)
    Sun has this already done and working, too. (I was there at the menlo park 'ceremony' and shot some photos of it): []

    sorry, no index.html yet - but I put together a thumbnail view in the time being: []

  • Didn't I see this on the X-Files?

    IIRC there was one datacenter in a shipping container (with satellite connection?), and another heavily automated camper trailer with a T3 (or was it OC3?).

    And it was a LOT more than two years ago.
  • Not sure how they'll get by with this seeing as others have been doing it. But I can see why they'd want. These container ship data centers are becoming very popular. Why build an expensive DC somewhere when I can just drop a container in a spot that has power. If I build a big DC I run the risk of running out of power in the near future leaving my new DC unable to grow. With these containers you can drop and move as conditions dictate.
  • by Greyfox ( 87712 ) on Tuesday October 09, 2007 @01:49PM (#20914455) Homepage Journal
    Indicates that they indeed thought of this first. So what's the problem?

    OK, I don't think they're quite THAT bad.. YET... I'm sure the guy granting the patent put almost exactly that much effort into his research as well...

  • by hey ( 83763 )
    In Cringely's article he explains how Google is going to win big time with this.
    Sorry, but I don't see a giant advantage to having data centers all over the world ... just to make Ajax apps faster.
  • Not even original. Using modified shipping containers has been done for a number of years. I remember deploying cellular telephone MTSO and cell sites in shipping contains back in 1991 in a few rural wireless markets.

    Also, semi trailers make good portable stations. I know there was at least a few semi-trailer cell sites in the Houston area as far back as 1988.

    A couple of issues with shipping containers:
    - if they are used, they will likely need to be replaced within 5 years (this could be a good thing though
  • ...for your lady.

    First, you get a box. Then you put your data center in the box.
    • You should have linked to the SNL short on Youtube for more effect.

      Maybe Google can call it the Digital Information Center Kernel...
  • Google announces the "One Datacenter Per Child" project.
  • As other posters have pointed out Uncle Sam has been doing this kind of thing for years. My experience with it was with the Army's tank gunnery simulator for the M60A3 and M1 tanks, the Conduct of Fire Trainer or COFT. There was a mobile version of the COFT called the M-COFT which was basically a 43 foot trailer with a simulated turret that contained a gunner's and tank commander's station, the evaluator's console and a whole bunch of VAXen in the back to handle the image processing. The Army would haul the
  • While I didn't read the patent, I'm sure I can assume a ton about what it says and totally guess about its validity!

    RTFP! Then complain. I'm not saying the patent isn't totally bogus, but if you're not going to read the patent first STFU!
  • How on earth is this even patentable material.

    Thats about the same as patenting putting a tent in my trunk " flexable location short term housing shipping device ".

I THINK MAN INVENTED THE CAR by instinct. -- Jack Handley, The New Mexican, 1988.