Web Hosting Interview - ThinkHost December 2007

Web Hosting Interview - ThinkHost December 2007

Michael Bloch, Business Development Manager at ThinkHost

This month we talk to Michael Bloch, Business Development Manager at ThinkHost, a company that is "changing the world by providing high quality earth-friendly web hosting services and supporting positive social change". ThinkHost bills itself as "powered by wind and sun" - meaning its hosting plans use electricity that is 100% derived from wind or solar power sources. We ask Michael what it takes to become so green and whether being green takes precedence over quality Web hosting.

  • HOSTSEARCH: Michael, great of you to speak to us like this. I wonder if you could kick-off with an overview of ThinkHost and your position within the company.
    MICHAEL BLOCH: John, thanks - I always appreciate an opportunity to chat about web hosting and its relation to the environment.

    ThinkHost, based in Portland, Oregon, offers quality hosting services to the world and caters primarily to small business, community groups and hobbyists. We provide a wide range of tools and features backed by solid infrastructure and a very passionate team - all at a very reasonable price; far less than what most people would expect to pay for earth friendly hosting.

    As you mentioned, ThinkHost is powered by 100% renewable energy and we're very active in the community, with around 10% of our annual revenue value being plowed back into sponsoring projects relating to humanitarian, social justice and environmental issues. By hosting with us, our clients share in those initiatives.

    I've been with the company for around five and half years now, currently in the role of Business Development Manager, but previously I was also a client of ThinkHost's. I've been working the web since the mid-90's; spending much of my life online since that time. Being a site owner and affiliate marketer prior to (and during) my time with ThinkHost I feel has provided me with a well-rounded view of hosting related issues from the tech, business, partner and end-user perspectives.
  • HOSTSEARCH: What is the history of ThinkHost? Your Web site suggests that you have been going since 1999. You couldn't have been into 100% renewable energy since then, could you?
    MICHAEL BLOCH: ThinkHost was founded by Vladislav Davidzon in 1999 and is still owned by Vladislav. We're a tight-knit and experienced team, the company is debt-free and being privately owned means that we don't need to satisfy shareholders; just our clients - and that's the way we like it. Vladislav's goals for ThinkHost haven't been limited to just providing the very best hosting services we can, but also to be a vehicle for supporting and promoting positive social change.

    You're correct; we haven't powered our services via renewable energy since1999. It was in 2003 when we made the switch and we were one of the first hosting services to do so. Even prior to the switch we were still quite active in supporting environmental projects through providing free hosting to green groups.
  • HOSTSEARCH: What was the reasoning behind going "green"? Was it purely an environmental concern, or did it make commercial sense? Isn't there a cost attached to such an initiative? Isn't it a major effort?
    MICHAEL BLOCH: Quite a few of us at ThinkHost are "treehugger" types I guess you could say, but we balance that green vibe with solid technological expertise, business savvy and general pragmatism. It's not all soy beans and sunshine, that's for sure - we're here to provide a good service that businesses can and do rely heavily on.

    Our environmental interests go beyond the business - for instance, I'm involved locally with helping to monitor and protect a nature reserve; one of our team volunteers in an animal shelter, another is on an university environmental committee panel. Vladislav is very active on social/environmental issues and ThinkHost also operates a couple of environmentally-themed projects; including EcoSpace.cc.

    Our personal passions aside, greening our services in a big way made good commercial sense also. Many in business are becoming increasingly eco-savvy, have a genuine concern for our environment and understand the impact of issues such as global warming.

    Businesses are gravitating to providers who share their values and likewise, consumers are seeking out businesses that show an environmental commitment - there is definitely green (revenue) in green; it's becoming quite mainstream. When people host with us, we also make buttons available to help them promote the fact their sites are powered by wind and sun. Judging by the feedback we receive from clients; this is very well received by their visitors and customers.

    There is a cost involved switching to renewable energy; but it's not as high as many people might think - we were able to do so without raising our prices. We offset our electricity usage via green tags and the cost is the value over and above normal electricity rates. While it's a little more expensive, we really believe it's worth it - not only in terms of benefit to the environment, but it also reflects very positively on our company and consequently the clients who host with us.

    Probably the biggest effort involved with making the switch was and is calculating our energy usage - these internal audits are carried out a few times a year to ensure we're covering ourselves, plus a little extra.
  • HOSTSEARCH: For the benefit of our visitors, what are carbon-neutral certificates and how do they work?
    MICHAEL BLOCH: Due to our infrastructure and geographical distribution, we couldn't install solar panels or construct a few wind turbines outside our various premises. It's also still incredibly expensive to go that way in terms of initial outlay - as I said, ThinkHost is debt-free and Vladislav intends to keep things that way.

    By purchasing Green-e certified green tags - 90% wind, 10% solar - this pays for the equivalent of the electricity we use to be generated via renewable sources - such as wind farms or solar arrays.

    The electricity generated by these sources isn't routed directly into our various facilities. We still pay all our bills as per usual to our current utilities - but for every X kilowatts worth of green energy tags purchased, X kilowatts less electricity is fed into the grid via non-renewable means - such as coal fired power generation. Essentially the net effect is the same as having produced the electricity ourselves on-site. Our expertise is hosting - we leave the production of the green electricity to renewable energy experts.
  • HOSTSEARCH: Isn't there an inherent problem with carbon-neutral certificates? If you buy a carbon-neutral certificate, doesn't it mean that your business activity is still generating greenhouse gases? Don't carbon-neutral certificates just slow down the process? This is not a rhetorical question - what is the benefit?
    MICHAEL BLOCH: : I'm really glad you raised this question. Yes, there has been a lot of debate about the value of green tags and I can understand people being confused by it all. What's caused a great deal of the debate is some of the low quality offset programs around - so it's wise to purchase certified tags.

    Around the world, there's an awful lot of data center infrastructure already in place and while it would be nice to have solar panels and wind turbines directly powering each one of them, it's horribly expensive at this point, somewhat wasteful of current infrastructure and is going to be some time coming.

    According to a study commissioned by Advanced Micro Devices, the energy consumed by data center servers and related infrastructure equipment in the United States and worldwide doubled between 2000 and 2005. The electricity consumption for data center servers in 2005 was equivalent to 14 coal fired 1,000-megawatt power plants. That's an enormous amount of not only carbon dioxide emissions, but toxins such as mercury entering our ecosystem.

    The purchase of green tags is a great way for hosting providers to do something very environmentally positive right now by ensuring the equivalent power that they use is fed into a grid somewhere from renewable sources such as solar and wind. It's a big picture concept and a practice that should be encouraged rather than being seen as the poor cousin to direct renewables powering.

    Imagine if every data center in the world purchased certified green tags - that would be wonderful as more renewable sourced electricity would be pumped into grids everywhere! This would also help fund further renewable energy power generation projects over coal-fired power; a major source of greenhouse gases contributing to global warming. The more demand for clean energy, the more green tags purchased, the less coal we'll use, the less emissions etc.
  • HOSTSEARCH: It is clear that ThinkHost is genuine in its efforts, but there seem to be a lot of press releases emanating from Web hosting companies around the globe discussing green issues. Is it genuine, or is there a bandwagon effect here?
    MICHAEL BLOCH: There are certainly far more "green" hosts around these days and overall that's a really good thing; we're honestly really happy to see it - the competition in this sector is healthy for the most part and that benefits all; including the planet.

    For some companies though, it is a bandwagon effect or purely a marketing ploy - a feature rather than a focus. It's pretty easy to tell how committed a hosting company is to green values when digging around a little on their sites.

    A host may buy green tags (or be powered directly via solar, wind, whatever), but approach many other aspects of their operations in a totally non-green way; yet promote themselves as being totally environmentally friendly. This is called "greenwashing".

    I think it's important for all companies to be up front about their claims; for example, there's no reason to hide the fact that you don't have solar panels on your data center roof and that you offset through certified tags - it's all good. Eco-savvy consumers also tend to probe claims, so it's just not worth trying to mislead people in this way.

    Demonstrating solid environmental stewardship goes beyond just the electricity powering a server; hence our slogan - "beyond green" - and it's an ongoing process and there's always room for improvement.
  • HOSTSEARCH: Your Web site says you have a plant a tree program as well. Can you tell us about that?
    MICHAEL BLOCH: I love this initiative. I was involved in a revegetation project a couple of years ago and there's nothing quite like nurturing a tree from seed and watching it grow.

    Trees are desperately needed in many countries to restore soil fertility, help in the battle against global warming and improve the lives of impoverished communities.  

    Under the ThinkHost tree planting program, technical knowledge on agroforestry and sustainable development, along with planting materials, are provided to communities in Central America, Africa and Asia. This occurs via our tree planting partner; a USA based NGO that's been involved in revegetation projects for many years. For each customer that signs up with us, we sponsor the planting and cultivation of a tree.
  • HOSTSEARCH: OK - so we've talked a lot about green issues and it's clear that anyone who takes the environment to heart as an issue should use your services. But, what about a hardnosed business executive who couldn't care less about the environment and just wants results from his Web site - now! Should he use your Web hosting services? What do they offer the less ecologically and more business inclined?
    MICHAEL BLOCH: One of the challenges of green hosting up until recent times has been the cost involved - it has been a premium service. That's rapidly changing as demand and competition pushes prices down. For example, we now offer full-featured hosting plans powered by renewable energy for under ten dollars a month - and that includes hosting for unlimited domains, unlimited databases, unlimited email addresses, very generous bandwidth and disk quotas, bonus software and much more.

    Hosting via ThinkHost is a very economical choice; we offer all the features most businesses need. Our service uptime is excellent and the servers definitely keep going if the sun isn't shining or the wind isn't blowing.

    Additionally, clients (and non-clients) can participate in our new partner program that currently offers $100 for each person they refer to our services - so by hosting with ThinkHost, clients can actually make money directly from their association with us.

    A very important point I'd like to make - environment and business is becoming more closely intertwined each day that passes by. It's not just a side issue; it's now one of the major issues facing businesses. The business executives who don't understand consumers increasingly want to deal with companies who demonstrate responsible environmental stewardship are an endangered species themselves.

    For any company - large or small - implementing environmental programs isn't just a warm and fuzzy gesture, it's simply good business.
  • HOSTSEARCH: Where do you see ThinkHost in the next 5 years? What do you have in store for customers and potential customers?
    MICHAEL BLOCH: Wow, that's a tough question - with the world changing so rapidly; particularly in areas of technology, it's really hard to say. I think back 5 years and the changes in ThinkHost since that time have been astounding. Buying out Google and then world domination perhaps?

    But seriously, we see ourselves further enhancing what we already have, further reducing our environmental footprint where we can and expanding into other services relevant to our customers. We very recently upgraded our back end infrastructure including account control interfaces and while I would love to spill the beans on exciting features and services currently being worked on, I've been sworn to secrecy.
  • HOSTSEARCH: Going back to green issues, what is the current state of play? Are things as serious as people tell us, and if they are, can we seriously make an impact on the situation through efforts like driving less and using the right hosting? Do we have time?
    MICHAEL BLOCH: It's my opinion that environmentally speaking, our planet is certainly not in good shape at the moment - we are very much on the brink; but what encourages me is the major awakening happening throughout the world. We're finally starting to reconnect with the planet that sustains us.

    We may be able to turn things around enough to avoid many worst-case scenarios, but we need to move very fast and not wait for those in power to tell us what to do or to expect others to do it for us. We all have a role to play. It's not about "sacrifice" as some people may think; it's about real solutions that work in with our lives.

    I write extensively on the topic of environment through one of my own sites and ThinkHost also has a vibrant environment-focused community at EcoSpace.cc that highlights some of the very positive things going on in the world of green. It's these stories and from visiting some of our clients' sites, seeing the little and big things they do, that I really draw some encouragement that we are starting to head in the right direction.

    Small changes in lifestyle and business operations multiplied by millions of people doing the same really can make a difference.  I find going green to be quite addictive - you make small changes, discover how easy it is and the positive feedback and benefits you gain - and it spurs you on to do more.
  • HOSTSEARCH: On a lighter note, what do you do to relax when you aren't helping run a world-class hosting company? What do you spend your free time doing?
    MICHAEL BLOCH: I'm particularly fortunate in that business and hobbies pretty much overlap for me. In my free time, I monitor and help clean up local parklands and write on environmental issues, marketing and ecommerce - these are all passions of mine!