Wednesday, 12 December 2018

Ethical Hosting at the FT


Last year, I wrote a case study on the excellent work that the FT have done on exploiting cloud infrastructure. For this follow-up, I talked to them about their progress towards not just fast and reliable systems but ethical and sustainable ones too. They are hopefully on course for meeting our Sustainable Servers by 2024 goal for ethical tech systems - it all depends on some small improvements from AWS.

The FT run over 75% of their compute in AWS cloud regions and are on track to move their remaining on prem servers into the cloud by 2020. At that point, their servers will commendably be nearly 90% sustainably-powered. After that, they would love to achieve 100% by 2024 - but they will need to persuade AWS to not limit some of their vital new services to the comparatively dirty US East region.

As their senior technical architect Rob Godfrey says, “As the FT continue to migrate our on premise infrastructure to the cloud throughout 2019, we will utilise sustainable cloud infrastructure where we can. We would love to see AWS continue to improve the sustainability of their data centres, us-east-1 in particular.”

The Process

Let’s step back and look at the FT’s progress in hosting so far. Historically, like most of us, they started with bare metal servers in their own on-prem data centres (DCs) powered by the UK’s mostly fossil fuel electricity. Again, like many of us their first step towards better utilisation and DC efficiency was on-prem virtualisation (they went for VMWare on Intel). They then experimented with building their own cloud but, in 2013, they chose to start trialling AWS when it became clear it was stable enough and going to provide the functionality they needed. Since then, the FT have been gradually transitioning all their servers from on prem to cloud - a transition they are on target to complete by 2020.

In 2018, around 75% of the FT’s infrastructure is AWS Cloud-based. However, where it is in that Cloud is crucial to its sustainability.

How Clean is AWS?

AWS currently have 4 non-governmental fully sustainable, 100% carbon neutral regions:

  • Ireland
  • Frankfurt
  • Canada
  • Oregon. 

Today, the FT splits their cloud resources roughly 5:1 between bare AWS instances and a Heroku PaaS.

⅙ on Heroku

Heroku's compute is AWS-hosted. ~70% of the FT’s Heroku dynos run in the "EU" Heroku region (which appears to correspond to the 100% carbon neutral Ireland AWS region) and ~30% in the "US" Heroku region (which appears to be on AWS's US East). These are the only 2 common Heroku runtime hosting options - EU (100% sustainable) and US (us-east-1, so ~50%).

⅚ on AWS

For the FT’s ~1250 “bare” AWS instances, they primarily use 2 regions: the sustainable Ireland (EU West) and the vastly less clean US-East. How is this resource divided up and why do they use two different regions?

Most of the FT’s compute is in sustainable EU Ireland, but for their high availability services they split their hosting over 2 regions: Ireland and us-east-1. In addition, they sometimes need to host further instances in US East because AWS still make some new or trial functionality only available in that region. AWS Lambda (Amazon’s Function-as-a-Service platform) for example was originally only available in that one region. As a result ~19% (by cost) of the FT’s AWS infrastructure remains in US East.

Overall Sustainability of the FT Hosting Infrastructure

All the numbers we give here are very approximate estimates, but if we assume that

  • AWS’ US East region is 50% sustainable (a guess based on 50% being AWS’ overall average sustainability and US East being their largest region). 
  • The FT’s legacy DC is 0% sustainable.
  • The FT’s AWS instances are 90.5% sustainable (corresponding to 81% in EU West being fully sustainable and 19% in US-East being 50% sustainable
  • The FT’s Heroku infrastructure is 85% sustainable (corresponding to the 70% in the EU being fully sustainable and 30% in US-East being 50% sustainable.


The result is that we estimate very roughly* 67% of the FT’s infrastructure is currently running on sustainable servers and this will rise to nearly 90% when they have completely transitioned to the Cloud in 2020.

This is good. But how will they get the final 10%? We’d all love it if AWS’s US East went carbon neutral! Failing that, we need to see features only available in that region (like new feature trials) being offered in sustainable regions too, so that clients like the FT could get the sustainable servers they want for the new services they need. 

In summary, the FT are making excellent progress but to get all the way to the all important 100% that they’d love to see, they’ll need some additional help from their cloud providers.

If you’d like to support them and us in our sustainable hosting goals, please sign our petition for 100% carbon neutral hosting targets for our industry.

 *All calculations are approximate.

Photo by Kenrick Mills on Unsplash






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