Remember when you were a kid and someone—usually a relative close enough to know better—would get you a gift that was, shall we say, not quite what you were expecting? You’d conjure up a smile somewhere between “gee thanks” and “I’m going to be sick” and try to exit the situation with as much decorum as 10-year old can muster. Unfortunately, your mother would always see through your façade of social graciousness and pull you aside to explain to you that yes, the sweater from Aunt Jane was a poor substitute for the new video game you’d wanted, but “it was the thought that counts”. Of course this begs the question as to what Aunt Jane was thinking in the first place, but this bromide has been offered up since time immemorial—you’ve probably used it on your own kids—so everyone pretty much goes with it. I never did wear that sweater though. I was reminded of Aunt Jane’s present faux pas, I mean the idea of “it’s the thought that counts”, when I read Mark Monroe’s assessment of Lifeline Data Center’s assertion that there new Indianapolis data center was “largely solar powered”.
As Mark’s blog cogently demonstrates, the real crux of the issue is how one defines “largely”. If you’re Mark, whose bio demonstrates more than a passing familiarity with solar technology and performance, than “largely” means a bit more than the 4.7% of total energy and 12% of the overhead generated by Lifeline’s planned 4 acre solar array. Mark does offer Lifeline kudos for their efforts, but calculates that a solar farm of approximately 137 acres would be required to fulfill all of the site’s requirements.
Lifeline, it appears, uses a somewhat lower definitional threshold for “largely” than Mark. I tend to lean in Mark’s direction, while my marketing guy—who never met a hyperbole he didn’t like—thinks the whole discussion is an exercise in nit picking. He feels that it is ultimately up to the customer to determine their own “redline”—I always like to throw in a topical reference to make sure folks are paying attention—for where “a little bit” crosses over to “largely”. From a practical perspective, this may have some validity. Should a data center have a power source 33 times larger than the facility itself just to make folks feel good about themselves?
I think the schism between the desire to be a steward of green energy and practicality is really the issue here. Obviously, the Lifeline guys are well intentioned and want folks to know that they care about the planet, but hey, undeveloped land is already green, and the 137 acres needed for the appropriate number of solar panels was a smidge outside the budget. As a result, they did what any ecologically committed, but cash poor, data center provider would do—they crafted a marketing strategy built upon their good intentions. Who can blame them? And really, isn’t “Largely solar powered” a little bit more catchy than “As much solar power as we could afford?”
The dilemma faced by the guys at Lifeline provides a real life example of the energy- related tensions within the data center world. It’s not that no one wants to use alternative energy methods like solar or wind, but their inefficiency in terms of performance and cost make them impractical solutions for any provider that intends to stay in business. Thus we are forced to either institute solutions that are testaments to these inefficiencies—you guys know who you are—or craft marketing plans to show that although we can’t deliver on the promise of fossil fuel free data centers, we feel really bad about it. In other words, “it’s the thought that counts” is no longer the salve for the wound of a bad gift; it’s an accepted business strategy.