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Green Hosting, or Eco-Friendly Hosting, is web hosting which seeks to mitigate or eliminate the environmental impact of the service it provides. Most web hosting customers probably don't worry or think about the impact on the global climate caused by their website or other online activity. However, that impact is very real, even though it is somewhat hidden and far away.
Any company seriously committed to lowering its own carbon footprint and ecological impact must take into account the activities of its vendors, and web hosting is no exception.
The Environmental Impact of Web Hosting
The biggest contributing factor to a web host's overall climate impact is power consumption. Servers require electricity, as do cooling units. Other power needs come from climate control, electronic security, and the physical building itself. In most places in the U.S. and around the world, electricity is generated by coal-fired power plants.
Another source of environmental impact is the manufacturing of server hardware and components, which requires a lot of power, but also involves mining, chemical processing, industrial waste production, and global transportation.
Additional environmental concerns include the amount of land occupied by data centers and the resources used in their construction.
Green web hosts help you reduce your own environmental impact by reducing the environmental impact of the hosting service you consume. Traditionally, this type of eco-friendly offset has carried an additional cost that only those truly dedicated to the cause would be willing to pay.
Increasingly, though, web hosting companies are getting more energy efficient, simply for their own cost saving measures. Electricity isn't free.
There is still a bit of a premium on eco-friendly or green hosting plans, but that price gap is narrowing.
How does Green Hosting work?
Green web hosting companies take a number of steps to lower the overall ecological impact of the services they provide.
Energy efficient server hardware
The bulk of the environmental impact of web hosting is the power used by the physical computers, so the first step in eco-friendly hosting is to use more efficient machines.
A number of design and manufacturing details contribute to the overall efficiency of a physical server, including materials used, internal component layout, and assembly quality. Solid state drives tend to be more energy efficient than their spinning-disk counterparts, because there's no motor to turn.
Efficient server software
The same server uses more energy under a heavy computing load than under a light one. They also get hotter as they use more computing power, so there is a cost to cool them back down.
For this reason, inefficient or bloated software -- whether at the OS, utility, or application layer -- is more detrimental to the environment than fast-executing, efficient code. Web hosts attempting to reduce their overall energy usage will make sure to use efficient, resource-optimized operating systems and web servers.
It's worth noting that, no matter where or how you host your websites, optimizing your code and content deliverability has a positive effect on your carbon footprint.
Space efficient account usage
While it's true that running a machine at half load requires less energy than running it full, two half-loaded boxes use more power than one running at capacity.
That is to say: Running more things on fewer machines is good for the environment.
One study found that the majority of data centers often run their equipment well-below capacity, consuming more energy than they needed to power more machines than they would ever use. Intelligent load balancing across a network of connected servers can help reduce the overall number of physical machines needed at any time.
The power used to run machines is only half the problem. The machines have to be cooled down, which can be very energy intensive.
Many environmentally friendly (and cost-conscious) web hosting companies use some form of natural cooling. This may involve positioning the data center near a river and using the water as a coolant, sinking geo-thermal heat-exchange loops, or locating the entire building in sub-Arctic regions to take advantage of naturally cold air.
No matter how efficient a data center is, it will have to use some electricity. How that electricity is produced is the single biggest factor affecting the carbon footprint of a web hosting company.
Many green hosting companies boast up to 100% of their energy coming from renewable sources, usually wind and solar.
Green-washed Hosting and Certifications
As consumers have become more aware of the effects of climate change, many businesses have turned to "Green Washing," or making vague claims about their environmental friendliness, even though they are doing nothing to mitigate their actual ecological impact.
If Green Hosting is important to you, be sure that you take the time to research the claims made by the hosting company.
A handful of independent certification companies provide verification of the environmental claims made by web hosting companies.