Here at Wholegrain Digital, we talk a lot about how to create more environmentally friendly web services and run more sustainable businesses.
Recently I got the chance to chat to Tim Dunton, CEO of Nimbus Hosting, about what they are doing within their business to reduce their environmental impact and I jumped at the chance. Hosting providers are often very cagey about how they operate on the inside and it was refreshing to have the chance to have an open conversation about what sustainability means for a hosting company.
We covered topics from renewable energy, to recycling electronic waste, to electric cars and lunch time runs and Tim has kindly given me permission to share our conversation. So let’s dive in…
When hosting companies claim to use renewable energy, it isn’t always clear whether they are referring to their offices or the data centers. I was pleased to hear that Tim felt that it should mean both.
“We’re on the green energy tariff at the office, which just makes sense these days. The office itself only has electricity, no gas. So all of our office energy is green electricity.
The data center works slightly differently, but that’s also on a green tariff, and they do carbon offset too. I don’t think there is much downside. The cost is not particularly higher. I think it’s just a no brainer. I think even if it did cost more money, you’ve just got to do it, really”.
The use of renewable energy providers is great, and it naturally follows that Tim is keen to use that energy efficiently.
“Our office is fairly new, about 10 years old, so it’s got quite a lot of benefits for heating, insulation, everything else. Double glazing obviously is standard, which is good.
In our office, we refitted in the last couple of years, we’ve changed the light bulbs to LED, which has been good and then the other thing we’ve been doing is switching all the lights to sensor-based too. They look like normal light tiles on the ceiling and are in sections of fours, so they’re literally pretty much above everyone’s desk. So if you’re not in, the lights above your desk won’t turn on.
And then the data centre itself is also about 10 years old. It’s got a fairly unique air conditioning system, or certainly did at the time, where it uses something called a fresh air system. So most older data centres, such as the ones in London Docklands, have air conditioning running all the time, whereas the one we’re in feed in air from outside as long as it is below about 20 degrees. That reduces their power consumption quite dramatically because the big thing with the data centre is that you consume energy to heat the servers up and get them running, and then also double the energy again to just cool them all down. This fresh air system is about as efficient as it can be.”
Like many hosting companies, Nimbus is based on a business park, which means that many people drive to the office. Tim is very enthusiastic about electric cars being a great fit for this type of location, and is very open about the fact that his interest in electric vehicles was initially sparked by the governments tax incentives.
“I’ve personally had an electric car for almost five years now. Certainly, Elon seems to know what he’s doing in terms of producing not just a eco-car, but also something that’s very easy to use and very good to drive, and certainly much more so with the Model 3. So it’s kind of a no brainer really and it’s nice to actually feel like you’re helping the environment.
Tesla also offered a business park charging scheme, which is very good They put an announcement out a few years ago, saying, “If you run a business park, let us know and you can join our scheme where we’ll send you some chargers.”
They sent us two chargers to our office. We paid for the installation and we pay for the electricity, but the bulk of it, the charger itself, they paid for. And one thing that’s quite clever is that they work on any electric car that supports Type 2, not just Teslas, which means that anyone with an electric car can charge at our office.
Our office is also equipped with three-phase power. So it means you can charge electric cars much faster and it’s been useful for when we’ve had visitors that come here and need to charge their cars before they leave again.”
Of course, there are even more eco-friendly and healthy ways of getting to work than driving in an electric car. Tim is keen to find ways to encourage more walking and cycling to work, and has implemented the Cycle to Work scheme, which allows employees to buy a bike and cycling equipment at reduced cost and with payment spread over time.
“We did the Cycle to Work scheme about four or five years ago and quite a few people have taken it up now. That works quite well, really. It’s a good reason for people to just get a bike, really.
Getting the scheme set up as a business was a little bit confusing, but long term it’s been no problem at all, actually. We also got a shower at the office so some people have been using that, not just for cycling but also for lunch time runs, at least pre-COVID. Where we are, there’s quite a nice park nearby, so it’s a good opportunity for people.”
Recycling IT hardware
One of the biggest environmental issues in the IT sector is the disposal of electronic waste. Every year, over 50 million metric tonnes of electronic waste are disposed of globally, with large volumes of it not being recycled. Furthermore, for every device thrown away, there is a corresponding impact in the materials and energy used to manufacture a new replacement device. Hosting companies and data center providers naturally use a lot of electronic equipment, and Nimbus seem to have a very responsible approach.
“It’s very easy for IT hardware to go back to landfill so we do a number of things to avoid that. We recycle all of our servers. We pull out all of the hard old discs and send them to a company in Stevenage which grinds them up for data protection, and they then recycle what’s left. And then we send all the old servers back to HP and they then recycle them on our behalf too. So that’s very good, because the last thing you want is it going back into landfill.”
Nimbus also tries to extend the life of their servers too.
“When we buy a server, we usually buy it with one customer in mind. And they usually cover the cost of it and normally after two or three years, the client upgrades to something else. Or it could be on a shared platform so there are a number of customers, and then after a while, it’s upgraded. Although the manufacturer warranties only last three years, we tend to keep the server much longer, usually four or five years. In the proceeding years, we sell it to another customer at reduced cost. It then gives us an entry point at a lower cost.
So we do keep the servers for longer, but I wouldn’t necessarily say that we buy servers truly for refurbishment, for a number of reasons. Firstly, everyone wants performance and speed and you’re not going to get that from something that’s four or five years old. And secondly, the other benefit with all the new kit these days is that they’re just so much more efficient. I remember 10 years ago, the servers used to use maybe 300 or 400 Watts per server, and that’s now down to maybe 70 or 100 Watts per server. So it’s a huge difference, really. You might save money on buying the kit, but actually you’re just going to spend it on more electricity.”
A solar future
When I asked Tim about what he really wanted to do in the future from an environmental perspective, solar panels on the office were top of the list.
“I’d love to do solar panels and I’d love to do a Tesla Powerwall, but I haven’t really got any further with it. There were some government incentives for solar, but they’ve obviously decided to lessen the incentive to do it these days. The reason I didn’t do it before is because I needed to put scaffolding around the building, and that meant that no one could park at work while they were being installed, which is a problem. But there’s no reason we can’t do it now because I’m the only one going into the office at the moment. So yeah, I need to crack on with that!”
I really appreciate Tim taking the time to talk about what they are doing as a business to reduce their environmental impact. Some of the things such as recycling, green energy and energy efficiency might seem obvious to some people, but yet they are surprisingly not standard in all businesses. It’s refreshing to hear Tim say that he feels that so many of these things are just no-brainers that every business should be doing.
“To be honest, I think cost savings are a key benefit from a commercial point of view. But I think it’s also just about doing the right thing. We’ve got to look after this planet, otherwise we’re just going to destroy it. You’ve got to look at the issues and think, “Well, I’ve done everything I can to try and prevent this and improve.” You can’t just leave it and let someone else deal with this.”