Every time a Google Document is created, a picture is uploaded to iCloud, or a file is backed up on Dropbox, those documents, pictures, and files go to the cloud. “Cloud” has become a trendy buzzword for companies to throw around whenever they refer to anything on the internet, whether that’s cloud storage, cloud software, cloud computing, or anything else. But where is that data actually going? And what does the “cloud” actually refer to?
In reality, the digital data is being sent to large, high tech facilities chock-full of computer systems called data centers. These buildings, which can range from a few thousand to a whopping six million square feet, are used to store massive amounts of data and do enormous, high intensity computations millions of times per minute. They are owned and operated by tech giants like Google and Amazon who use them to power their applications and store their users’ information.
From the outside, data centers may not look like much. They often look like bland office buildings or large warehouses. In fact, many data centers intentionally try to be inconspicuous in order to avoid having their facility designs stolen. On the other hand, some also can be open, sprawling warehouses or occasionally sleek, extensive campuses.
Inside, data centers are home to row upon row of servers. Unlike a PC or a laptop, though, these are powerful and heavily optimized machines that contain only what is needed to make them run as quickly and efficiently as possible. These devices look like plain black metal boxes, with a few ports and buttons on them, but without any peripherals like monitors or mice – although the exact look varies based on what task they are meant to perform. The servers are packed tightly on holding racks, with cables and cooling tubes running between them.
Generally, there are three different types of computers that can be found en masse in data centers: servers, storage, and networking machines. Each of them perform a vital task in the data center’s operations. Servers are in charge of all computational work. They do the behind the scenes heavy lifting for apps, like sending emails, figuring out which posts should show up in a Facebook feed, or finding the results to a Google search. Storage systems are collections of high capacity drives used to store documents like the Google Docs, iCloud photos, and Dropbox files mentioned before. Finally, networking equipment is used to tie those two components together as well as connect the data center to the outside world. They are used to manage the data being transferred between the different servers inside the center and the data being transferred in and out of the center itself. All of these components work together to make the data center able to do its job, whatever that may be.
With all of this equipment tightly packed into a small area, it can get quite hot. Similarly to how a laptop warms up after a while of use, these machines could theoretically reach temperatures up to five hundred degrees fahrenheit, which would lead to the devices overheating and their internal components being damaged. This is why data centers employ extensive methods to keep their facilities cool. Most cooling infrastructures use a combination of powerful fans like the ones found in PCs, just much larger, and systems that deliver the cool air to the areas that need them. There are also newer and more advanced infrastructures that add small coils that run throughout the buildings and carry chilled water to maintain a low air temperature. All of these methods together ensure that the temperature in most data centers never peaks above 80 degrees while still data centers pack together thousands of servers on tight racks.
Among the many concerns data center operators have to think about, one of the most important is security. Digital information held inside is often highly sensitive, and the servers within are critical to keeping internet apps running and data private. Additionally, the actual hardware housed within the facilities is incredibly expensive and can be very fragile. For these reasons, companies that own data centers focus a lot of their efforts on their security, both physical and digital.
For example, in one of Google’s data centers, a staff person first has to pass through a human-operated gate and use their pre-authorized badge to unlock the doors just to enter the building. When they want to go into a higher-security area, they step into a glass tube which seals behind them and prevents anyone unauthorized from sneaking in, then use their badge once again and an iris scanner to verify their identity. And all the while, there are cameras, guards, and advanced intrusion detection systems that make getting into the facilities unauthorized a nearly impossible task.
Securing data is also very important. Data centers use a range of techniques to makes sure data is never lost, stolen, or damaged. They use top of the line IT security measures to prevent hackers from accessing the data remotely. In addition, data is often spread out over multiple drives with redundancy so in the unlikely chance that a drive is damaged or stolen, information is not lost.
Large data centers are industrial-sized operations, and like any industrial operation, they use a lot of electricity. In fact, many large data centers take up about the same amount electricity as a small town. For example, one Facebook data center in Prineville, Oregon uses 28 megawatts of electricity, but all the other homes and businesses in the county use up only slightly more electricity at 30 megawatts. All of this electricity is quite expensive for companies, so they take steps to minimize the facilities’ power consumption.
Data centers are large scale and complex facilities which require hundreds of different components all working together to keep them running. We’ve barely scratched the surface in this article, so if you’re interested in finding out more, you can check out the Wikipedia page for data centers for a much more in depth look. You can also find out more information on websites like DataCenterKnowledge.com.
Next time you upload a file to the cloud, keep in mind the hundreds of people, thousands of servers, and millions of dollars working to keep your data safe, secure, and accessible. They are the ones making sure your internet experience is on cloud nine.