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Over 10 per cent of Google's internal machines are hiding their software makeup from the outside world, according to data collected by Net Applications, a web analytics outfit that captures user traffic on more than 40,000 sites across the net.

When visiting webpages, the firm says, 11 to 13 per cent of internal Google machines display browser user agents that are completely empty. And judging from the behavior of these machines, Net Applications is confident they're operated by real people. "We are quite certain it’s not the Google search spider," Net Applications' Vince Vizzaccaro tells The Reg.

Net Applications would not provide additional information, and when we contacted Google, the company declined to comment - multiple times.

Late last week, Net Applications told InternetNews - and The Reg - that these Google machines were leaving user agents where only the operating system was stripped out. Vizzacarro has now told The Reg that this characterization was not true, that the user agents in question are stripped of everything. But his initial claim led InternetNews to speculate that Google was testing some sort of new-fangled operating system behind its firewall - and the rumor was off and running.

A browser user agent not only identifies the browser a machine is using, but also its operating system.

It's well known that Google uses its own version of Ubuntu Linux - dubbed Goobuntu. And at one point, according to a former employee, engineers also used a customized version of RedHat known as GRHat. But this employee - who did not work with the core engineering team - was unaware of Google using a proxy server or any other means of blanking out user agents.

In the past, Google and Ubuntu boss Mark Shuttleworth have denied that Mountain View has any interest in distributing Goobuntu outside the company.

But as Google beefs up its online office apps and builds out massive data centers across the planet, the world has long assumed that the search giant would one day build its own "cloud OS" - an operating system that depends heavily on web-based services.

And that may be the case. But blank user agents are no proof of it. If Google were attempting to hide an internal operating system, it could just as easily change the OS identifier in its user agents to something run-of-the-mill rather than blank the agents out entirely.

Johann Burkard, a programmer and webmaster who closely tracks browser user agents, says that empty agents account for less than one per cent of the traffic he sees. But he tells us he has not seen the Google traffic Net Applications speaks of, and he doesn't see why Google would do such a thing.

Burkard blocks traffic with empty user agent headers and many other webmasters do the same. And he agrees that if Google were testing a top secret OS, disguising it as Windows or an ordinary Linux would make the most sense.

So why is Net Applications seeing what it's seeing? ®

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