Towards a Sustainable Internet

50 shades of green hosting

Choosing a provider to host data can sometimes look like a long and winding road.

Published

Most electricity generated globally is from fossil fuels, and the internet is no different. We are making strides in renewable energy infrastructure but unfortunately increases in consumption and data is reducing the impact of this progress.

In this article we’re going to cover green hosting, but first it's important to acknowledge that we don't have control over the entire network, whether it is the electrical network or the Internet. It is ubiquitous, and will use the user’s local power grid to deliver data to devices - and sometimes carbon-intensive energy is the only one available. This is why reducing data is the holy grail of a greener internet (the most eco-friendly energy is the one that’s never used in the first place).

In a nutshell, data transmission is divided into three phases: where the data is stored (the location of the data centre), the cables that criss cross the planet, and devices. We (as designers and developers of the internet) have influence only on the first - the data and where it’s stored.

Data hosting

If you’re searching for hosting, there are three criteria to choose the greenest option - the location, the energy efficiency and the carbon intensity:

Location of the data centre and the audience

It’s important to think about where the majority of the audience is, as a lot of energy is used transporting that data across the networks from host to user, wherever they are in the world. Having your data stored close to your visitors will reduce energy consumption. The Green Web Foundation has established a comprehensive database of web hosts that are committed to use green energy to help organisations and businesses to make better and easier choices.

If you have a pretty varied international audience, choosing one location can be difficult. In this case, you can use a CDN (content delivery network) which stores cached versions of content in different locations closer to users, so the distance is shorter. Currently these services aren’t completely powered by low-carbon energy, but it does reduce the amount of energy consumed.

Energy efficiency of the data centre

A data centre requires energy to power the servers, as well as cooling them down. The hotter a computer is, the less efficiently it works. Power usage efficiency (PUE) is a term that refers to the ability of a data centre to keep its energy costs down - having a PUE of 1 would indicate that you have a flawless data centre in which all of the power entering the facility reaches your IT equipment without being used for cooling or lighting systems, or lost in transmission. Our go-to is Swiss hosting company Infomaniak has a PUE of less than 1.1, which is extremely efficient.

The carbon intensity of the electricity used to power the data centre

This seems obvious - choosing a data centre that is powered by low-carbon energy will reduce the carbon consumption of any digital product, and you can do so by choosing a Green Web Foundation list supplier. That said, never lose sight of the fact that this data centre in some ways relies on the global grid - when you buy renewable energy, you're not necessarily using it to power your equipment directly from a wind farm. The grid is a combination of all energy, however the more cash that goes to renewables, the more it will grow - thus widening their network and putting even more renewable energy into the grid.

A case-study

We've helped SomethingMoreNear in bringing its new low-carbon website to life. The most common visitors are from the United Kingdom, with the United States coming in second. Given that the general grid of the United Kingdom is not particularly low carbon-intensive, we picked Iceland (with 1984hosting ) which is not far from the UK geographically (and between the US & UK).

The abundance of geothermal and hydro power energy, as well as the cold climate, which drives PUE to be very low, make Iceland a 5-star green hosting option.

Championing a diverse eco-system

In the process of choosing an hosting provider, a last question, not directly connected to its carbon impact, must be raised: who do you want to support?

The GreenWebFoundation's database includes several of the world's largest technology firms like Amazon, as well as a number of smaller IT services that rely on Google Cloud platforms.

Many of this biggest technology companies have already made pledges for future years regarding carbon reduction. In 2007, Google announced that it was carbon neutral.

These companies are literally hosting the Internet, and therefore have put in place very efficient data hosting services.

But at Hey Low, we believe in others ways.

This is not an article about the many issues with Big Tech*, rather a call to champion a more resilient, localised ecosystem of internet services - an open, diversified set of actors as in a forest.

In nature, we value bio-diversity over monocultures because we know that resilient ecosystems are the foundation for many different things to thrive, as well as to survive if some parts may fail; and we need the internet to be the same.

Polyculture, or the practice of growing many different crops in one garden, is one of Permaculture's design principles. It asks for a wide range of plants, animals, and techniques, because diversity serves as an insurance policy - if one crop fails, another may flourish. Polycultures have been shown to be more productive and resilient to floods, droughts and pests than monocultures, and provides a better quality product that is beneficial to a more local area.

The internet is a constantly changing ecosystem, just as the natural world is.

We must act for its resilience too.

*Ok, if we have to say a few things ...

It’s not complicated to understand that large monopolies controlling data, with no limits on growth, unethical advertising practices and extortionate profits - is not something that serves the wider good.

Datas are the oil that keeps Big Tech enterprises going.

There are practically no upload limitations on YouTube. Google derives part of its enormous profits from advertising that appear on content producers' videos. More videos. More ads. More money. The system was created with the goal of bringing in more data to generate more revenues.

This is not even mentioning all of the democratic, structural difficulties in dealing with large monopolies. Or the fact that they're assisting oil corporations get more oil.