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Where on earth is cloud data actually located?

Different types of data being stored in 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 is 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?

Where is my data actually stored?

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 my data?

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 that 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 that you can plan for, but not necessarily avoid.


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.


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8 Responses to "Where on earth is cloud data actually located?"

  • Matthew - Server Space
    14 November 2013 - 12:25 pm

    “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.”

    This is a great description, it isn’t always easy describing Cloud Computing but in using a managed server customers need to be able to access their data at any point and know their data is safe.

  • Where is the internet? (Clue: look down) | Grace Darlington
    04 October 2014 - 4:08 pm

    […] When asked about the whereabouts of the Internet, normally most of us would automatically look to the sky. ‘It’s in the cloud somewhere’ is a common reaction. ‘It’s stored in satellites in the sky’ is another. These answers are technically correct. There is such a thing as ‘cloud computing’ where data is stored on ‘server farms’, and sometimes yes, companies ‘outsource’ their server farms to satellite as a way of reducing cost. […]

  • Rob Willox
    10 September 2015 - 11:56 am

    To many users the Cloud is some abstract place where data is stored safely and forever present and available. They fail to realise that, as the post outlines, it is just another bigger computer sited somewhere else which might even be next door.
    It is not either a panacea or a ‘set it & forget it’ scenario and alternatives should always be available including your own in-house data storage as an option.
    As your old grannie probably used to say, “don’t put all your eggs in the one basket”!

  • AmIJustAPessimistOrWhat?
    15 July 2016 - 1:48 am

    How does the above article correspond to the news (Jul 14, 2016) about Microsoft not being obliged to respond to search warrants about email on foreign servers?
    If, as this article describes, the link between the physical person and the physical location of the server farm is arbitrary, there are some wacky implications. Chinese authorities have the power to search the email of an US citizen whose email just happens to be stored in China, And if, as would make sense, a persons mail is backed up on servers in multiple countries spread throughout the world, what then?