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The mysteries of 'green hosting'

15 March 2022

As part of our Sustainability Pledge 2021, we said we'd review website hosting – with a view to moving all of the sites we manage over to a more environmentally sustainable hosting provider.

But being more sustainable isn't as straightforward as we'd expected (or hoped). There's a lot more to consider than simply picking a 'green' hosting company.

Tools like WebsiteCarbon are great as a rough guide to websites' environmental impact, and as a reminder that every website has an environmental impact. But these tools can only access basic information. They can't tell you the full story of how a website is hosted because … it's complicated.

This overview is intended to give you a basic understanding of the main complexities involved. (As well as outlining what we're doing about it at Supercool – to make sure our clients' websites are as environmentally sustainable as possible.)

A complex supply chain

Hosting provided through Supercool sits within a complex supply chain.

Starting at the data centre which houses your website and its content, it goes all the way to the people using the site to browse events, read your news, and buy tickets.

In between you've got database servers, web servers, proxy servers, firewalls, payment gateways, security, caching layers, load balancers …

Graphic illustration of a woman with pained look, pulling at her hair in frustration
Our combined attempts at drawing a neat diagram to clearly show you the complexities of web hosting were not successful

With so many constituent parts to storing and delivering your website, there’s a huge variation in what people consider to be 'green'. (Is a hosting provider 'green' if they use renewable energy to power their offices, but not the data centres they run? Or vice versa?)

And there's a limit to what we can control or even influence within this infrastructure.

Hosting providers and data centres

Hosting providers manage and run the data centres where your website and content are ultimately stored. Our provider uses cloud storage data centres, which are generally greener than their on-premises counterparts.

Green is good – but we still need your hosting to be speedy and reliable. We can't compromise on that.

Your website needs to serve many users – sometimes lots of them at the same time. We can't have the site falling over when there's a spike in traffic, or becoming so slow that people give up partway through buying a ticket. As an increasingly important source of income for your organisation, your website needs to have a high up-time from reliable hosting.

And we need to be able to make changes to your server set-up in order to maintain that reliability. This requires the hosting provider to allow us flexibility and access to the server – but not all hosting providers offer this.

Content Delivery Networks

Content Delivery Networks – shortened to CDNs – hold a cached copy of your website geographically closer to end users. This reduces the distance content needs to travel to reach people's computers.

Not only does this means the website uses less energy – making it greener – it also makes it quicker to load. Wins all round!

Screengrab from WebsiteCarbon.com shows the results for this page: Greener than 79% of web pages tested, only 0.3g of CO2 produced per page visit, and this page "appears to be running on sustainable energy"
Screengrab from WebsiteCarbon.com shows the carbon impact of loading this blog post

Except that using a CDN masks the rest of the supply chain – which may include a less-than-green hosting provider.

As tools like WebsiteCarbon can detect CDNs but not the entirety of the supply chain, depending on how it's been set up, a website using a CDN may get a good sustainability score even if it's not on a very environmentally sustainable hosting set-up. (Notice that phrasing in the screengrab: "… appears to be running on sustainable energy".)

What we're doing – and why

Rather than jumping-ship, we decided to talk with our existing hosting provider – Digital Ocean. We wanted to find out what, if anything, they're doing to become more sustainable.

This is a summary of their response:

  • Within a month of us getting in touch and asking about their sustainability policies and practices, Digital Ocean had appointed a VP of Social Impact. Part of this person's remit is to review and report back on the sustainability impact of Digital Ocean, and to create a sustainability strategy. Great!
  • Although Digital Ocean’s offices are in the USA and India, we use their London data centre – which runs on 100% renewable energy.
  • They partner with European data centre providers, Equinx and Interxion. These don't yet run on 100% renewables but have ambitions to do so – so we’ll keep an eye on their progress.

The complexity of web hosting makes it very difficult – almost impossible – to be confident that your website hosting is entirely green, throughout the supply chain. No matter how many green ticks, or badges, or high sustainability scores you have.

Digital Ocean have been transparent about what they're doing now, and their plans for the future. We’re happy with the speed, reliability, flexibility and access of their hosting, and are keen not to lose this.

Also, an important part of environmental sustainability is advocacy. By asking Digital Ocean (and our other suppliers) to share their sustainability plans, it lets them know it's something their customers care about. This encourages them to take it seriously – and to take action.

So, we've decided to remain with Digital Ocean for the time being.

(And we're moving all clients to a CDN, to reduce the carbon footprint of all the websites we manage.)

What's next?

Whilst we've decided to stick with our current hosting provider for now, we’re open to changing in future. We'll be monitoring Digital Ocean's progress, and if they don't do what they've promised – or aren't making changes quickly enough – we’ll move.

And we'll continue looking into other 'green' hosting providers as they come to market, to ensure we’re using the best solution for our clients – and for the planet.

Interested in making your website greener?

Bookmark our handy compilation of resources, articles, links and tools: supercool.co/green

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