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Jostling to get inside Google's Oregon outpost

Reporter makes a valiant attempt to get up close to the new facility along the Columbia River. Photos: Google in The Dalles

THE DALLES, Ore.--When The New York Times reported earlier this month that Google is building a giant server facility along the Columbia River here, it piqued our interest at CNET News.com.

Since I was about to embark on my Road Trip 2006 around the Pacific Northwest, we decided it would be a good idea for me to drop in on and see if I could get a look around.

The Dalles facility

Of course, we suspected that Google would say no to such a request, since they hadn't even let the Times in.

We did ask the company, formally, by e-mail, but Google spokesman Barry Schnitt wrote back to my colleague, CNET News.com reporter Elinor Mills, saying, "Unfortunately, we do not permit visitors into our infrastructure facilities."

That's understandable. Still, because I was in the neighborhood, I decided to drop by anyway and see what I could find.

To be sure, the folks here in the city of The Dalles are very aware of their new neighbor. I stopped at a gas station on the edge of town and asked a gentleman with a raspy voice and a baseball hat, sheepishly, if he could direct me to the Google complex.

He laughed, having obviously been asked many times before, and gave me precise and, I might add, accurate directions. With that, I headed directly there.

The complex is imposing. It's in the northwest corner of a giant industrial park, and it's directly adjacent to the Columbia River. Surely that, and The Dalles Dam, a giant producer of hydroelectric power, had a lot to do with Google choosing this tiny town, which appears to have very little awareness of modern technology.

Road Trip 2006

In fact, it's not just Google that's here, or nearby. Microsoft and Yahoo have both set up shop in the region to take advantage of the cheap power that comes from the dams along the Columbia. (I had stopped several days ago to visit the biggest of them all, the Grand Coulee Dam).

Anyway, I drove up to the facility and parked in the lot, where there is a sign saying "Project 02 Construction Parking Only" (the only written evidence that something interesting is going on). I walked over to talk to the guard.

Now, you have to visualize this. The complex is comprised, to date, of two pale yellow giant industrial warehouse buildings with no windows and with mammoth cooling systems on their roofs. The cooling systems are visible for miles. They're that big.

And that makes sense, since there are supposed to be thousands upon thousands of servers inside, generating a massive amount of heat.

But the complex is far from done. In fact, there is a huge amount of construction work going on, and equipment laying around on just about every square inch of ground inside the fences.

The sound from the giant cooling system around the back of the facility is just deafening. A construction worker who was standing along the fence trying to make a call on his cell phone was struggling mightily to hear the person on the other end.

Finally, I approached the guard shack and asked if I could see inside. The guard on duty called someone to ask what to do, and a minute later a truck pulled up and two gentlemen got out.

I told them who I was and what I wanted.

"Our orders are no news media," one of the men told me. "The client (Google) asked to refrain from taking pictures. We're not allowed to let you on site. All I can say is sorry."

I nodded and said thank you and then asked for the man's name.

"I don't have one," he told me.