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Whatever Happened to that Google Cargo Container Idea?

By - January 10, 2007

40Steel

It was killed by “conservative managers” says an ex-Googler in this Chronicle article from earlier in the week.

The piece tracks familiar territory of rich early employees getting the itch to go do something else.

Extremely wealthy from stock options that soared in value, 100 of Google’s first 300 workers have quietly resigned to go to law school, help poor shopkeepers get loans or simply to live the good life. Although hardly a mass exodus, the numbers are adding up, scattering what some employees considered their second families.

For Google, the departures present a new hurdle. Enticing as many old-timers to stay as possible is a priority because, with each farewell party, a piece of the company’s institutional knowledge and culture is lost.

Or, perhaps, the Google culture was changing and the newly rich old timers were unhappy about it, the piece intones. Will Whitted, an engineer who worked on the much-rumored server cargo boxes, said this of Google:

“I loved it and hated it,” Whitted said of his time there.

Whitted, who helped design several generations of Google’s servers, said the company was increasingly bogged down by its size. Conservatism was creeping in.

One of the ideas he championed was to build portable data centers in cargo containers, a project Google tested in its headquarters parking lot. But managers were too timid to pack in enough servers, so the experiment was not cost-effective and was ultimately canceled, he said.

“Instead of inspiration-based design, it became fear-based design,” Whitted said.

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8 thoughts on “Whatever Happened to that Google Cargo Container Idea?

  1. Matt Cutts says:

    “Or, perhaps, the Google culture was changing and the newly rich old timers were unhappy about it, the piece intones.”

    I can’t speak to every area at Google, but I certainly wouldn’t agree with that as a sweeping generalization. In search quality, for example, lots of people come in every day and brainstorm ways to make search even better.

  2. DeanG says:

    Obligatory Sun Shipping container data center link…
    http://www.sun.com/emrkt/blackbox/story.jsp

  3. Ivan says:

    Or maybe they killed it because there was no point to it? I mean, I’ve heard this story lots of times, and I really love the idea of shipping containers packed with servers. But what are they for? I mean, do you ship them somewhere? Where? What do you plug them in to? Who looks after them? Whose land are they on? Why do you need container loads of live servers? etc etc. Just never seemed to be any use.

  4. JG says:

    So Matt, after 8+ years of lots of people coming in and brainstorming every day about ways to make search better, why is the only consistent, visible change (“improvement”?) that I’ve seen to Google’s search results the addition of up to 3 advertisements on top of the SERPs?

    Steve Robertson and Karen Sparck Jones, two grandparents of the search industry (they have been working on search since the 1960s), wrote a tech report in 1997 entitled “Simple, proven approaches to text retrieval”. In this paper, they outlined some of the most basic things one can do to get better results. These are techniques and approaches that have proven, time and again, over the years, to work.

    One of the first things they mention is iterative searching, i.e. giving the users the ability to do relevance feedback in order to improve term weighting. After 8+ years of daily search improvements, has Google offered this capability yet? No.

    Another thing they mention is longer queries. Does the user want better results? Then they have to use more words to specify what they want. So it would seem to me that Google would want to come up with better interfaces for eliciting more information from the user. While the average length of a user query has increased slightly over the past 5 years (from like 1.8 words to 2.2 words or something like that), users are still too lazy to type in a 10-word query themselves, it’s true. But if the search interface itself provided some way of easily allowing the user to increase the size (and therefore specificity) of their query, results would also improve.

    So where is that interface? Why does the SERP page continue to be crowded with ads, instead of iterative search and query specification aids? These are things that have been known for going on 30 years now to improve search. And yet Google continues not to offer them.

    Why?

    I know I’ve asked this question on this forum, and on many other forums, over and over again. The only response I have ever heard from Google are statements along the lines of: “We here continue to evaluate numerous clustering, query modification, etc. algorithms, but have so far not yet found one that meets our quality standards.”

    Well, that was believable for a while, but now that it has been 8+ years, that explanation is starting to wear thin. How can it be that 30 years of scientists find that longer queries and relevance feedback can improve the search process, but Google can’t find a single way of implementing this?

    Maybe it is the case that Google has found that these long-proven search improvement techniques are actually no longer proven, when you have web-scale data collections. (Frankly, I think it would be just the opposite; more data means better feedback models.) But maybe Google has found this to be true. If so, then publish, guys, publish! Give back to the community!

    There was a thread about this on Battelle’s blog a month or two ago. If you’ve really found that certain things no longer work, publish, and give back to the community. Because as it stands right now, from the outside, it looks like you actually haven’t been testing any of these ideas (or at least only half-heartedly), and instead have been wasting your time developing instant messaging clients and finance applications, instead of organizing the world’s information by focusing on search.

  5. Dempsey says:

    Yeah I think a portable data center is probably useful for terrorist and trance DJ, but can’t think of another reason for one. Nice idea, no reasonable use. Sounds like the conservative managers were just being realistic.

    The “20% time” is a great idea, but everybody’s pet project can’t actually be worthwhile. Just my $0.02 (anyone got change for a nickel?)

  6. Dempsey says:

    Yeah I think a portable data center is probably useful for terrorist and trance DJs, but can’t think of another reason for one. Nice idea, no reasonable use. Sounds like the conservative managers were just being realistic.

    The “20% time” is a great idea, but everybody’s pet project can’t actually be worthwhile. Just my $0.02 (anyone got change for a nickel?)

  7. Andy Redfern says:

    Does the fact that some of the junior Google employees are very weathly tally with the fact that there are so many internet start up’s at the moment?

    Would anyone know or have any details what some of the early employees are doing? would be an interesting list.

  8. Trogdor says:

    OR … we’re merely meant to think that the shipping-container datacenter idea was hosed, when in reality, Google is secretly …