In my last post I described I gave a primer outlining the differences between using shared hosting, having a full fat dedicated server to run your website on. I also explained why Virtual Private servers represent the best of these two worlds, and how finding a good affordable green host was much harder than it really needs to be.
In this post, I'm going to outline what I'm looking for in a hosting company - to give an idea of what my priorities are when finding a host, and the reasons for my critieria. In the next post, I should have enough data back to share my final results.
The ideal host I'm looking for would:
1) Be based in the UK, or alternatively, the EU.
There are two main reasons for this:
1) Support -
Having someone speak the same language as you makes life much simpler when you have support questions. Having them exist in the same time zone also helps.
2) Data protection
Personal data is essentially radioactive - fairly harmless in small amounts, but when you collect and store it carelessly, losing track of it is increasingly dangerous, expensive. There is a strong temptation to store data with cheap hosting companies in the US, but in the EU data protection laws are far more stringent, with far more restrictions on what information can be passed on to third parties, so by storing data closer to home, you can argue that you are voluntarily subscribing to a much more rigorous legal framework than if you were choosing to store all your data in a region where privacy laws were weaker.
However, if you are storing your data in the US, you should be aware of the Safe Harbour agreement. You can think of as set of principles designed to emulate the EU data protection laws, which should provide some public statement of intent for the care you take with people's data. The thing is, organisations gain this status by self-certifying as Safe Harbour complaint, with no legal obligation for a third party to audit this status, so you're effectively asked to just take a company's word that they voluntarily take the same care with data as would be required by law over here in the EU.
2) Source its power responsibly
The best case scenario for our hypothetical data centre is one that sources its power exclusively from renewable sources. By doing business with the company, we're helping grow the market for renewable energy, which desperately needs to happen. Sadly, there are very few companies who source their energy like this, b) there simply isn't much capacity in the UK right now. a) mainly because the idea of buying your power from the most expensive source possible when it's usually the single biggest cost of your company is financially quite a painful decision to make.
In this case, offsets to cancel out the unavoidable leftover emissions are basically unavoidable. Where they are used, offsets that go towards investing in renewable power are more attractive option, because they stop more coal fired power stations being built, so the carbon is saved straight away, compared to than simply planting trees in the hope that over the next 20 or so years, they'll eventually make up for the carbon dioxide that was pumped into the atmosphere today.
3) Uses the power that it does suck off the grid as efficiently as possible.
This isn't such a huge ask for a supplier; and the costs of power are simply so high, and the savings available are so obvious (40-50% savings in power aren't uncommon) that this step is happening by default. The degree that companies are doing so, and their willingness to openly discuss what steps they are taken are good indicators of how seriously they take this, and how well communication flows inside the company.
As a rule, if the company can coherently communicate internally about their own processes so that the customer facing staff can talk about what steps the company is taking on this, then they're likely to be able to provide support effectively too.
4) Use Open Source Software and actively support its use.
In 2009, when most of the web has been built on open standards and runs on open source software, I shouldn't really need to say why open source is generally a Good Thing. But when a hosting company actively invests and uses open source software themselves, they're much more likely to be able to provide meaningful support if something breaks, and have useful expertise on hand to troubleshoot. Finally, the other advantage of open source is that stops lock-in - if you aren't happy with service, you can simply move to another supplier, rather than being stuck using a proprietary product that can't be replicated elsewhere. This tends to mean suppliers compete on price, and customer service or sustainability, which are also Good Things.
Now that I've outlined what I'm looking for in a host, I can explain in the next post who we think is the best fit for these criteria, to spare some other poor soul of 3-4 weeks of research and emails.