27 July 2021

Sustainable Data Centres

In his last article, Sam Selbie, our Senior UX Producer, explained that all websites have a carbon footprint (including yours). Read on to learn how to make data centres more sustainable.

Power hungry data centres, and how to green them up!


Data centres (where websites are stored) contribute most of the measurable carbon emissions that make up this footprint.

Through a mixture of green hosting and offsetting you can substantially reduce how your website storage contributes to your overall carbon footprint.



Storage uses electricity


Data centres are warehouses for websites. These aircraft-hangar sized sheds house rows upon rows of specialised computers called ‘servers’ stacked on top of each other. Centres like these house many of the world’s websites, but they use up a lot of electricity.

Keeping a computer switched on 24/7 will hike your energy bill, many of you may have learned while working from home. But if you’ve ever sat with one on your lap while watching a few hours of Netflix, you’ll know that they also get quite toasty. When you stack lots of computers on top of each other (like they do in data centres) you need to use special systems to keep them from overheating; these systems also use LOTs of electricity (almost as much as the servers themselves!).

All told, the combined electricity for keeping a data centre switched on and suitably chilly can be astonishing.

Some of the biggest data centres in the world use the same amount of electricity as Salt Lake City.  And when you combined all the data centres in the world together, they use about 1% of all the electricity we produce!

Since your website lives in a data centre, and these data centres use up so much power, you want to make sure that you’re going with the greenest option. The first way to do that is through a green hosting provider.



Green hosting


Green hosting providers are just like any other folk who run data centres, except they have committed to be as low impact as possible.

Usually, they do this by powering their data centres with clean energy (like wind and solar) and offsetting their unavoidable carbon emissions (e.g. Planting trees to offset buying new hardware).

If you want to know if your hosting provider is green, ask them the following:


1. Who powers your data centre, and where does their electricity come from?

2. Do you offset any emissions from your electricity use, or operations?

3. What is your data centre’s PUE? (This is a measure of energy efficiency. 2.0 is average for normal small to mid-sized data centres. Really big ones can get down to 1.2 or lower, which is better.)


The first question is the most important – your host might have a very efficient data centre, but if it runs on coal, it will be worse for the planet than an inefficient data centre run on solar.

Alternatively, you can use the “Green Web Checker” to see if your webhost is ‘green’; though it doesn’t give you more information than that.



What if my host isn’t green?


Not using an eco-friendly hosting service or can’t make the switch? That’s ok, you can still offset your emissions. Although this doesn’t prevent greenhouse gasses from entering the atmosphere, you can still make up for them by investing in technology that removes greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere. The best known way of doing this is by planting trees!

Don’t worry though, you don’t have to go and plant them yourself. Tree-planting APIs from DigitalHumaniTree MatesPrint ReLeaf (beta)TreeNation, and More Trees all offer you the ability to plant trees automatically based on user actions on your website.

Using this tech, you could automatically plant a tree every time a user purchases a product, signs up for a newsletter, or refers a friend (and what a great incentive!).

You could calculate the carbon emissions of per page visit using something like Website Carbon, and then automatically plant trees to offset those emissions.

You could even make tree planting an easter egg on your website. When users find hidden sections or pages of your site, you could reward them by planting trees.  

But don’t let these suggestions be the end of it; the possibilities are endless (though if you’re struggling to think of others, feel free to get in touch).



Wrapping up


This was a bit of a long article, so I’ll keep my conclusion short.

Your website probably lives in a data centre. That data centre uses a lot of electricity.

To make your website greener, you should make sure that data centre uses clean electricity.

If you can’t switch to a data centre that uses clean electricity, you can offset your carbon footprint.

Tune in soon for my next article, on how to make your website greener AND faster.


Credit: Sam Selbie, Senior UX Producer