It’s not easy being green

You may have seen many hosts touting their “green” status lately. Hey, green is good, right? But what does it really mean?

At home you may do things to reduce your energy use, recycle waste, reuse, reduce – all the steps an individual can take to lessen their negative impact on the environment. But just about every web hosting business typically consists of two things; an office and a data center. A company can certainly take steps to reduce consumption within an office; turning off unused lights and monitors, using less air conditioning, encouraging car pooling, etc. But the bulk of a host’s consumption takes place at the data center, and that’s where things get a little fuzzy.

Servers require a large amount of electrical power and a cool atmosphere. If the temperature in a data center starts to nudge it’s way up into the high 80’s or low 90’s, servers begin to fail. Cooling entire floors of large buildings that contain tens of thousands of servers is an expensive proposition, both in cost and environmental impact. But it is an unavoidable cost, since the servers can only function within a narrow temperature range. Additionally, all computers contain small amounts of toxic materials necessary to their construction. That’s why your city may have a specific site where they ask you to bring in your old electronics, rather than dumping them into a landfill. The harsh reality is a host cannot do much to reduce its environmental “footprint” where their data centers are concerned.

So if a host wants to declare itself green, what can they do? Well, typically they buy “carbon credits.” When you see a host sporting a “green” logo, that is very likely the path they have taken. The problem with these credits is they allow a business to make claims of being green while otherwise not changing a thing that they are doing. They still have to power and cool their servers, so there is always that inevitable level of energy use that cannot be sidestepped.

Buying carbon credits seems disingenuous. If there is no effort to reduce your actual use of energy or toxic materials, what have you really done by buying a “credit”? All you have done is pay for a logo to place on your web site. You are assuaging your guilt, or the wishes of your customers, by writing a check. What does that really accomplish?

Everyone in our business is being forced to look for ways to consume less power, simply because power in most data centers is now at a premium. You can get all the space you want, and all the bandwidth you want, but electricity is harder and harder to come by in the vast majority of large facilities. But if you choose to rule out carbon credits, your options become much more limited. We do not tout ourselves as a “green” host because – at least at this point in time – we do not believe such a thing is really possible. And as the technology improves and becomes more widespread, and an honest “green” label is within our reach, it is something that we will certainly pursue.

Having said that…

There are a few options. One is using a “green” data center, meaning a facility that gets its power from renewable sources. As you might imagine, they are few and far between, they are rarely really “green,” and there are none at all anywhere near our base of operations. The second option is the aforementioned “carbon credits.”

Where we can make a difference by our choices, we do so. Aside from utilizing newer, less power-hungry CPUs in our new servers, we have also introduced a sophisticated power monitoring system in our Irvine, CA data center. This allows us to maximize the load on our existing power supply in order to avoid bringing in additional power. Without a monitoring system it is more or less a guessing game – “How many boxes can we load onto this circuit?” and obviously in most cases you will err on the side of caution (to avoid overloading a circuit and taking down a dozen servers). Erring on the side of caution inevitably leaves you with an underutilized supply of power.

But with our new systems we can monitor power usage in real time and maximize the use of our power allotment. This has reduced our power “waste” (power provisioned but unused) by 20 – 25%. You can imagine the overall savings that could be realized if all large data centers provided such a monitoring service for their customers, but very few do. And those that do typically charge a premium that forces most smaller companies to opt out of the monitoring. Our Irvine data center – a very large place – offers no such detailed power consumption analysis service, which is why we had to bring in the hardware ourselves.

But probably the major step we have taken is with our newly opened data center in the U.K. The architecture there is completely different than the U.S. network. We utilize central file servers and “virtual machines” for the web servers. What this means is that a handful of centralized units can do the work that used to require dozens of discreet servers. This configuration has the added benefit of actually being more efficient in serving files as well, so we save a tremendous amount of power and provide a speedier service. A rare win/win situation, but so far it is performing quite well. If we continue to see positive results in the U.K. we will consider moving to a similar architecture in our U.S. data center, where the bulk of our accounts reside.

Now, when it comes right down to it these were business decisions. Saving energy is good for our bottom line. But whatever the intention, the end result is the same. So if it takes a cost analysis to convince some people that reducing energy consumption is a good thing, we’ll take that as a small victory. Most people who are driving smaller, more fuel efficient cars these days are not doing so out of noble intent. They are trying to save money. But we still reap the environmental benefits, so it’s a good trend overall.

Until truly green data centers start cropping up in Los Angeles we will continue to work on our windmill up on the roof of the building. It’s not much to look at now, but give us some time.

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