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A real-life Google query goes awry

mountain view — A balmy Silicon Valley morning, and shaggy-haired engineers on bicycles are rolling up to the Googleplex. On their way through the bright, primary-coloured lobby of the Google headquarters, some grab organic juice from a company-stocked fridge. Lava lamps line the reception desk, and live global search requests scroll by on a large screen: “American Idol,” “cheap Tokyo flights,” “green bean casserole.” I feel as if I’m looking through the search engine’s enormous eyes.

Google and I have always had a good relationship. I send it queries and it gives me what I want. But now I want to get serious with the Internet giant — I want to find my way to Google’s humming heart, the legendary server farm where thousands of computers process millions of search requests every day. I’ve heard that this data centre feels alive: it eats huge amounts of electricity, produces extraordinary heat, and sheds used-up hard drives like dead skin cells.

Joel, a tall, eyebrow-pierced software engineer in a shirt that reads “Canadians draft beer, not soldiers,” has agreed to help. He waves me over to a corner of the lobby, where a wardrobe-sized metal enclosure holds twenty racks of four hard drives each. Lovingly, he caresses the model server, explaining that my search request would ricochet through several such devices, responsible for sorting and collecting data, before it zoomed back to my laptop — all in less than a second.

“But where’s the actual server farm? ” I ask. Joel smiles and explains that its exact location and layout are part of the company’s competitive advantage and therefore secret. He has instead arranged a tour of the company’s virtuous cafés, which Google is keen to show off.

The $175-billion company wants to be everything to everyone these days, namely a sexy, successful technology business that is also ethical. At Google’s recent fundraiser for the X Prize Foundation, whose mission is to reward “radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity,” the likes of Robin Williams and Tipper Gore bid on items such as eight minutes of weightlessness and a trip to Richard Branson’s South African game reserve. On the earthier end of things,, an unusual for-profit philanthropic arm that Google’s founders hope will one day eclipse its commercial operations, is tackling world problems from climate change (through hybrid car research) to world poverty (with literacy programs in India). The juggernaut may be out for world information domination, but it’s trying to be nice along the way.

With the company’s do-gooder public image in mind, I soon understand why I’m being steered toward Foodle. I cruise past a stainless steel kitchenette where a young woman in a poncho stares into the fridge, deciding between local organic yogourt and Kombucha, a Himalayan drink that Google chefs have made trendy on campus. Behind her, a wall of bulk food: fifteen kinds of cereal, cashews, granola bars, gummy bears, and chocolate, most of it organic. All of this food, along with everything from the complex’s thirteen cafés, is free.

And I want a piece of it. Perched with John Dickman, Google’s manager of global food services, on tall chairs overlooking a volleyball court, I tuck into easily the best pancakes of my life: gingerbread buckwheat brown-rice con-
coctions drizzled in vanilla-infused maple syrup. Joel has arranged the meal with the tanned, sweatshirt-clad executive, who’s eager to explain that the estimated 12,000 meals the company serves its Mountain View employees each day are, as much as possible, organic, locally grown, and artisan produced. When I ask about Googleplex waste, he leaps up to show me a pile of takeout boxes and spoons made of a biodegradable corn-based plastic. Google also has its own composting facilities, which it’s working to spread citywide.

Hoping breakfast might have softened things up, I resubmit my query: “May I see the server farm? ” My new guide, from public relations, is evasive; there are data centres all over the world, he says. He takes a Googler aside to tell me more about the food, but the petite young engineer, who is visiting from India, has an unexpected take. “The Google food in Bangalore sucked,” she says. “My friends and I would go out to eat Subway sandwiches every day.” My escort quickly changes the subject, whisking me along to our next destination.

In the atrium of eco-friendly Building 43, a huge white model of SpaceShipOne, the first private piloted aircraft to make it to space (and the inaugural X Prize winner), hangs above a wide staircase made of Brazilian rainforest wood — sustainably harvested by indigenous people, I’m assured. Twenty recent recruits, the unacclimatized among them dressed in their business-suit best, are lined up to get security badges. A few other “Nooglers” have gathered around a large monitor displaying a bright, whirling image.

I look closer. The countries of the world spin past on a dark globe, long flares of light shooting skyward. The rays represent real-time search requests, colour coded by language; their flashing points of origin form outlines of continents and highlight the dense population clusters of the developed world. Then the display changes to show arches reaching between cities and across borders, a lattice of requests leaping from home computer to data centre.

Google has rebuffed my advances and shown me more screens, but I remain entranced as the globe turns, revealing the intricate web of the company’s worldwide power. And suddenly, I see my server farm: a tiny dot in northwestern California, embedded in a mesh of electronic neurons. Google may not have a heart, but its brain is breathtaking.

Ali Symons