Where is the Cloud?

Think of cloud computing and the first thing that comes to mind is usually a mainstream application like Google DriveDropbox or iCloud, but there is a lot more to it than you might think.

Firstly we need to understand what cloud computing actually is. In a nutshell, cloud computing is all about storing and retrieving your personal (or corporate) data from your own little area on the Internet. Nothing is stored on your local hard drive and it is accessible from any location, any device and at any time.

If that all sounds a little far-fetched, think about an email service you are already using e.g. Gmail, Yahoo, Hotmail etc. None of those emails you send and receive are actually taking up space on your local hard drive, they are stored on the email providers’ servers: this is a form of cloud computing.

To take this example further, remember that you can log in and access your emails from any pc, any laptop, and any smartphone. This is only made possible by the cloud.

However, many people don’t realise that despite being held in the “cloud”, your data still needs to be physically stored on a device somewhere. Whether this is on flash or traditional hard drive storage, companies offering this service still need to have huge servers dedicated to storing your data. These places are often called “server farms” and are essentially vast warehouses filled with servers which are running 24/7/365.

This raises a number of questions: where is my data actually stored? Who has access to my data and is my data safe?

In terms of where your data is stored, it is fairly safe to say that you will never truly know unless you do some digging. The provider may be based in the US (for example), but their servers might be in China, or the UK, or anywhere else in the world. Many companies outsource their server farms to satellite locations in order to reduce costs. So it is very difficult to know where your data actually resides, and the cloud provider may not necessarily disclose this.

Who has access to your data is another point to consider. Reputable companies have tried and tested security systems to ensure that only you have access to your data. There are faceless companies out there offering the same amount of storage and functionality, whether you choose to trust them or not, is an important decision.

In addition, you should also find out about the safeguards which are in place to keep your data secure and always accessible. Most reputable cloud storage providers will replicate your data several times on different servers to ensure that in the event of a catastrophe, your files are safe. This is not to say that your data will ever be 100% safe: natural disasters, fires and malicious damage (for example) are all events which can be planned for, but not necessarily avoided.

The vital point to remember is that although your data is not physically stored on your local hard drive, it is still stored somewhere, and with this in mind it may still be susceptible to the same failures and problems as the hard drive in your laptop or pc. Server farms are not invincible; storage media can fail, large corporations can get hacked, and data can get deleted just as easily on a server as it can on your computer, so be wary of storing all of your important and confidential files in the cloud.