The ecological impact of data hosting and the growth of green data centres

The world has changed exponentially in the last 30 years since the first web page was posted by Tim Berners-Lee on 6th August, 1991. Where once the internet was a slightly underground movement populated primarily by scientists, it has since grown to become the most important medium in the world today – the driving technology behind everything from e-commerce shopping sites to film and TV networks such as Netflix.

The growth and impact of the internet

It’s estimated that we now produce a massive 2.5 quintillion bytes per day globally (for reference, that number written down is a 1 followed by 18 zeros). Moreover, the amount of data produced is poised to grow significantly with the substantial uptake of the Internet of Things (IoT) – essentially a network of smart connected devices capable of producing, interpreting, storing, sending and receiving data. 

The growing ecological problem of storing data

While most of us don’t particularly consider how our data is stored, it is starting to become a real ecological problem in terms of the power required to host these vast amounts of information and media. Data centres and servers require a significant amount of electricity to operate 24/7 serving pages, apps and data. When you consider most hosting companies typically own centres that contain hundreds or even thousands of these rack-mounted devices, you begin to get a clearer picture of just how much power is used. 

To compound this energy drain, other associated services such as cooling facilities and online security provision to prevent, amongst other issues, SQL injection attacks, also need power day in, day out. 

This huge need for energy has a negative impact ecologically which, in turn, has led some companies to look at greener solutions to power their hosting services. 

What is green web hosting and how do providers achieve it?

As the name implies, green web hosting is a hosting solution that looks to cut energy use – normally through using alternative sources for power such as renewable energy. By default, renewable energy is far kinder to the environment since it is derived from natural sources e.g. wind turbines, solar panels or hydroelectricity derived from water. 

Another practice that is now becoming more common among hosting companies is to source more efficient hardware to reduce energy use. Anything that can help limit a hosting company’s carbon footprint can be considered a green approach to hosting. 

Just as people are slowly moving to finding the power for their homes from these renewable sources, so too are hosting companies trying to use alternative energy sources. It’s now becoming far more common for more progressive companies to attempt to generate as much (or more) energy as they’re using and return it to the grid. Of course, this doesn’t just make sense from an environmental point of view – it also helps hosting companies reduce their costs.

Hosting companies don’t necessarily have to do this process by themselves – they can also enlist the services of a green energy supplier. When the hosting company purchases so-called Green Tags, the supplier will return a prescribed amount of energy back into the grid on their behalf.

If you’re in any doubt about the green credentials of your web host, ask them if they have green certification. The two most common types for hosting companies are renewable energy certificates (RECs) and carbon offset certificates such as verified emission reductions (VERs).

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