When you hire a company to host your website, you’re basically paying that company to arrange for the code to your website to made available to computers around the world, 24/7/365. That company may store and run that code on its own computer or rent that computer space from another company. This computer is, of course, not at all like your computer or mine, but (in most cases) is one of hundreds to hundreds of thousands of hard drives accessed by huge banks of servers stored in a datacenter in a location that may or may not be known to you.
It’s not that the information is secret – most web hosting companies are very forthcoming about where their datacenters are and, in some cases, even how they work. But the average consumer tends not to be that concerned about where their website is physically hosted, so long as it is up and running all the time and is not so far away that it effects load times or Google’s location factor in its ranking algorithms. However, where your website is hosted in the real world can matter. Besides the potential benefit to ranking factors, the kind of datacenter your hosting service uses can have an effect on both the cost of hosting and the footprint your website leaves.
Most of us think of websites as something that exist purely in the virtual world, but every site has to be hosted on a computer and those computers run on electricity and generate a ton of heat that has to be dissipated. According to greenhousedata.com, the carbon footprint of a medium-sized datacenter can range from 3 million to over 130 million kilograms of CO2. If datacenters formed a nation, it would be the 5th largest consumer of energy in the world.
All that electricity, not to mention the means of cooling the server rooms, adds up fast. A 2015 survey by IDC indicated that an average of 24% of a large datacenter’s budget is dedicated to power and cooling costs. The result? That cost either gets passed on to the consumer (you) or is made up for in other areas, like delaying technology upgrades that could make your site run better.
So what’s to be done? Well, many of the larger datacenter owners and developers have put a great deal of their R&D budgets into finding better (read: cheaper and more sustainable) ways to power and cool their acres of machines. Many, like Amazon Web Services, have made commitments to run entirely on renewable energy (Amazon has 3 wind farms and a large solar array). But others are getting even more creative.
Green Mountain in Stavanger, Norway
Built in a former NATO ammunitions facility, this 118, 000 sq ft datacenter relies entirely on renewable hydroelectric power and uses already-cold water from a nearby fjord for cooling, which is then returned to fjord unharmed.
Google in Hamina, Finland
This site is housed in a former paper mill which came with a pre-existing tunnel that allows Google to use 100% naturally cooled seawater to cool its datacenter there.
Facebook in Luleå, Sweden
Facebook built this datacenter right on the Arctic Circle in order to use the naturally cool Nordic air for cooling. The site is powered by locally-generated hydroelecetricity that is so reliable they were even able to reduce the number of back-up generators by 30%. They even use excess heat generated by the servers to keep their on-site offices warm.
Microsoft Under the Sea
Microsoft’s Project Natick is exploring the possibility of using sustainable pods deployed underwater to address rapid provisioning at lower costs while keeping things ever more environmentally sustainable.
Something you might have noticed about most of these greenest-of-datacenters is that they are, for the most part, not so local. Tech giants like Facebook, Amazon, and Microsoft serve customers all over the world and have global networks of datacenters that allow them to do so quickly and efficiently, while taking advantage of natural energy-saving environments wherever they may be. They also have the scale and capital to invest up front in the often costly technologies that will allow them to save in the long run.
With the exception of Amazon, none of them offer very robust web hosting services. So what about environmental impact of the datacenter hosting your website? Well, most web hosting companies haven’t quite caught up with the big data dogs yet, but some are making an effort. Over the coming years, as the need for datacenters continues to grow along with the cost of electricity and concern over carbon emissions, we can expect that many of the innovations being made on the frontier of green datacenter development will start to spread to smaller datacenters as well.
In the meantime, here is what we know about some of the most popular web hosting companies and the environmental impact of their datacenters.
Digital Ocean uses 11 data center locations across the world to house its infrastructure, but they are not exclusive. Instead, Digital Ocean leases space from other datacenter-focussed companies including Equinix/TelecityGroup, Telx (owned by Digital Realty Trust), and Interxion. In many cases, the exclusive focus on datacenter development can encourage companies toward greener set-ups, and all three of these providers source a large portion of their energy from sustainable sources.
Amazon Web Services
Amazon has a stated commitment to 100% renewable energy, which it achieves as noted above -with 3 wind farms and a solar farm that deliver more than 1.6 million MWh of renewable energy into the electric grids that supply the AWS Cloud datacenters.
Read more about Amazon Web Services’ sustainability efforts
OVH is the top provider of hosting services in Europe. Like most datacenter operators of its size, OVH has made many efforts toward sustainability, including taking advantage of locally generated hydroelectricity at its largest site in Beauharnois, Canada; using water and natural air cooling in order to avoid the need for powered air conditioning; and even constructing its newer buildings to use less energy and create a smaller footprint.
Read more about OHV’s sustainability efforts
Unlike many of its direct competitors, Rackspace runs, owns, designs its own datacenters. Early on, the company began to focus on building sustainable datacenters that took advantage of energy-saving systems and renewable energy and cooling sources. Though they may not be in the forefront of innovation in the green datacenter charge, their efforts to reduce the environmental impact of their facilities (10 around the world) has been consistent since the start, and they remain on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s list of Green Power Partners.
Read more about Rackspace’s sustainability efforts
At the last count we could find (April, 2018), GoDaddy was making use of some 37,000 servers in 9 data centers around the world, including one that it owns in Phoenix, AZ. That facility takes advantage of a hot aisle/cold aisle design, with cold air entering through the 36-inch raised floor and exiting through a return plenum in the ceiling. Hardly cutting-edge in terms of sustainability, this design does at least go some way in reducing the amount of energy needed to cool the servers.
Bluehost and HostGator
Bluehost and HostGator are both owned by Endurance International Group, which has maintains its primary datacenter in Utah. The datacenter is not at all known for its efforts to “green” its facilities, and very little information about its environmental impact is available.
Though an individual website may have a negligible environmental impact on its own, maintaining the virtual world draws on a lot of the physical world’s resources. Take the time to find out who is hosting your web host and what efforts they are doing to reduce the impact of the Internet on the environment.