Spoiler Alert: The "Cloud" Isn't Actually A Cloud

This became all too real when Google prompted me to either upgrade my storage plan or delete files on my drive to make room. This didn’t make sense. If I am using cloud storage – as opposed to the storage system on my computer – then why was I being asked to pay for more room or make more room? Wasn’t there supposed to be an infinite amount of room just like there is an infinite amount of sky?


The answer is: no, cloud storage does not mean that your files – and your junk – are floating aimlessly in the air. On the contrary, they take up room, and this room is important real estate. The “cloud” still relies on actual physical storage systems – hard drives, much like the one that is built into your computer or the ones you can plug in for extra storage. They are located in what are called server farms or data centers. The difference is that these “cloud” hard drives (yes this is an oxymoron) are owned by other people and located elsewhere – depending on the provider a company uses for its cloud storage – like Microsoft or Google – your data may be physically stored in another country if the data center is there. Even though the hard drive that contains your data is not physically with you, you are still able to access your data thanks to the internet. So really, cloud storage is internet based storage, but it still has a physical presence somewhere.


The benefit of cloud storage is that your data is now moveable because it exists within a network of hard drives, rather than on a single one: the energy used to store and access your data is now shared across multiple platforms. This allows the device you use to access your files, like your phone or computer, to run at increased capacity because it is no longer weighed down by a bunch of “stuff” – i.e your data. It can rely on the other hard drives in the network to take on the load. If your device fails, you can still access this data on another device – the cloud system will have simply moved your information over to another hard drive in the system, so that you can access it.

Cloud storage is kind of like having your physical belongings stored in a facility outside your home. They still exist in a physical environment, but they are not physically with you, meaning there is no clutter. This is one of the reasons cloud storage is appealing – it reduces the feeling of having a cluttered computer, leaving you with more peace of mind.


You may be thinking that because your data is stored elsewhere, it is less safe. But that isn’t necessarily true. Because your data is able to be moved around on different servers, it could actually be harder to track and hack. Also, cloud storage run by big companies is extremely well protected, precisely because they are run by big companies who have a lot to lose should anything go wrong. Most of the serious hacks that have occurred on cloud storage systems targeted smaller or private servers.


Again, I refer to the analogy of a physical storage facility. It is hard for someone to rob your belongings when they are stocked in a facility because they are amongst so many units. The robber wouldn’t necessarily know whom they are stealing from, not to mention the fact that storage facilities are typically well protected by cameras, which would discourage someone from stealing. It is easier for robbers to steal directly from individual homes. This does not mean that robberies – or hacks – cannot occur in big storage facilities or in the cloud system, but it is much less likely.


I guess I was quite far off when I imagined my information floating somewhere in the ether…


Further readings for those interested

https://aws.amazon.com/what-is-cloud-storage/

https://www.ibm.com/cloud/learn/cloud-storage#toc-what-is-cl-vt64lltQ


References:

Carter, Anthony, “Where is Cloud Data Physically Located?” Virtus Data Centres, virtusdatacentres.com, Apr 24, 2019, https://virtusdatacentres.com/item/381-where-is-cloud-data-physically-located.


Hardy, Quentin, “Where Does Cloud Storage Really Reside?” And Is It Secure?” The New York Times, nytimes.com, Jan 23, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/23/insider/where-does-cloud-storage-really-reside-and-is-it-secure.html#:~:text=Instead%20of%20being%20stored%20directly,to%20you%20via%20the%20internet.


Vasconcelos, Pedro, “Where on earth is cloud data actually located?” The On Track Data Recovery Blog, ontrack.com, May 7, 2020,

https://www.ontrack.com/en-us/blog/where-on-earth-is-cloud-data-actually-stored.