A View to the Cloud

What really happens when your data is stored on far-off servers in distant data centers

We live in a world that’s awash in information. Way back in 2011, an IBM study estimated that nearly 3 quintillion—that’s a 3 with 18 zeros after it—bytes of data were being generated every single day. We’re well past that mark now, given the doubling in the number of Internet users since 2011, the powerful rise of social media and machine learning, and the explosive growth in mobile computing, streaming services, and Internet of Things devices. Indeed, according to the latest Cisco Global Cloud Index, some 220,000 quintillion bytes—or if you prefer, 220 zettabytes—were generated “by all people, machines, and things” in 2016, on track to reach nearly 850 ZB in 2021.

Much of that data is considered ephemeral, and so it isn’t stored. But even a tiny fraction of a huge number can still be impressively large. When it comes to data, Cisco estimates that 1.8 ZB was stored in 2016, a volume that will quadruple to 7.2 ZB in 2021.

Our brains can’t really comprehend something as large as a zettabyte, but maybe this mental image will help: If each megabyte occupied the space of the period at the end of this sentence, then 1.8 ZB would cover about 460 square kilometers, or an area about eight times the size of Manhattan.

Of course, an actual zettabyte of data doesn’t occupy any space at all—data is an abstract concept. Storing data, on the other hand, does take space, as well as materials, energy, and sophisticated hardware and software. We need a reliable way to store those many 0s and 1s of data so that we can retrieve them later on, whether that’s an hour from now or five years. And if the information is in some way valuable—whether it’s a digitized family history of interest mainly to a small circle of people, or a film library of great cultural significance—the data may need to be archived more or less indefinitely. [READ MORE]