Google: The New Port Authority

A juggernaut gets ready to inject a big glob of silicon into New York City

111 Eighth Avenue, designed by Lusby Simpson and completed in 1932 to house the Port Authority of New York, is one of the largest buildings in the city, an architectural marvel, and a landmark. Looming like a 15-story locomotive over Chelsea, the mammoth red-brick structure occupies an entire city block between Eighth and Ninth avenues and 15th and 16th streets—a footprint larger than two football fields.

And a footprint big enough for Google's giant steps.

But Google exec Alan Eustace was being coy when he addressed Citigroup's annual Global Technology Conference late last week at the Hilton Times Square. The Internet search juggernaut's senior vice president of engineering and research was describing a new and urgent reality facing Google. "Can you build global products with a workforce that is only in Mountain View, California?" Eustace asked, posing a rhetorical question to the several dozen assorted Wall Street types in attendance, some of whom were dozing off as he spoke. "The answer is, no you can't. The technical talent that we need to solve the next generation of problems in search does not all live in Mountain View, California."

Search for tomorrow: Google's future hub in Chelsea
photo: Ofer Wolberger
Search for tomorrow: Google's future hub in Chelsea

Eustace left out the part about the 300,000 square feet of space that Google plans to occupy in the heart of the city. It's a poorly kept secret that the company will soon open a huge new office and networking facility at 111 Eighth Avenue. Google's new base in the city will dump a sizable influx of Google employees into the social and professional environment of Chelsea and the West Village.

The art deco landmark is fast becoming one of the most important high-tech facilities in the world. Google's blockbuster invasion of New York and its impending takeover of nearly two floors of the massive building aim to make New York City a key component of its little-publicized global expansion—the details of which have become fodder for a mildly hysterical parlor game in the technology community and on Wall Street. The ultimate goal? Perhaps the planet's biggest ever computer network, bypassing all those pesky cable and telephone companies.

That's why what lies beneath 111 Eighth Avenue may be more important than the building itself. The old Port Authority headquarters sits atop one of the main fiber optic arteries in New York City—the Hudson Street–Ninth Avenue "fiber highway." The venerable behemoth is already one of the country's most important "carrier hotels"—loosely speaking, the physical connection points of the world's telecommunications networks and the World Wide Web. As a result, Google will "have access to as much bandwidth as possible and as much variety of bandwidth as possible," says Dana Spiegel, a technology consultant and executive director of NYC Wireless.

And now Google will be putting massive amounts of brainpower in the same building as the physical connections. But how does the new data center at 111 Eighth Avenue fit into Google's broader plans—and just exactly what are Google's broader plans, anyway?

"We have nothing to announce at this time," a typically mum Google spokesperson says when asked about the new offices. "But," she added, "Google is always looking for opportunities to expand." The spokesperson noted that Google already has over 500 employees at its current location at 1440 Broadway in Times Square—an office believed to occupy approximately 100,000 square feet over four floors.

Because the company refuses to share its plans with either the general public or Wall Street, speculation has bounced around the technology world without official refutation. Some tech watchers have suggested that Google is building a nationwide wireless distribution network to bypass Verizon, AT&T, and the rest of the telecom and cable incumbents. Others have speculated that Google is building its own "parallel Internet" so that it can exert maximum control over online information flow and distribution. Still others have suggested that Google is building something akin to Skynet, the malicious computer network that in The Terminator became "self-aware" and launched a war to destroy humanity.

Bill St. Arnaud, senior director for advanced networks at CANARIE (Canada's Advanced Internet Development Organization), chuckles at these suggestions. "I think what they are doing is a lot more modest," he says, adding, "Google loves the speculation because it rattles their competitors. All they have to do is sit back and say nothing."

Still, Google is up to something.

In 2005, the company spent some $838 million on facilities and hardware. Along with massive purchases of unused "dark fiber"—the underground fiber optic cable left dormant since the dotcom crash—the company has invested in a series of giant data and networking centers. These data centers are home to an estimated 450,000 individual servers, grouped in clusters, or "server farms." With its vast open floors and technological amenities, 111 Eighth Avenue appears to be an ideal location for a massive Google data center.

"It turns out that one of the biggest global peering facilities is in New York City at 111 Eighth Avenue," St. Arnaud says, referring to the physical spots where tech firms hook up with one another. By positioning server farms in key locations like 111 Eighth Avenue, industry experts believe, Google is quietly, but systematically, building the most advanced computer network in history. "This is why Google is locating big server farms around the world," St. Arnaud says.

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