the-substance-of-cloud-webThe problem with the term ‘cloud’ is that it feels like something nebulous, something you can’t touch or feel or get your hands on. But if you use ‘cloud’ storage, your files are not disappearing into the ether. They are going into a data center that is quite physical. In fact, unless you work for one of the largest companies in the world, your files are going into a facility that offers more security, redundancy, safety and environmental and operational efficiency than anything you could build yourself.

Cloud Storage: The Best Data Center Money Can Buy

The cloud is built from the best data centers money can buy. Microsoft has already invested a reported $15 billion to build Azure facilities.

Unfortunately, the very term ‘cloud storage’ still makes some people uneasy, prompting many questions. What does it mean to move data to the cloud? Where does it actually go? What happens when it gets there? Is it secure? Most importantly: Can I get it back? Despite the prognostications of some insiders, cloud fear is a stubborn phenomenon. I like to compare it to a fear of flying. We all know that flying is statistically safer than driving or crossing the street, but driving feels safer because we are in control. On a plane, we cede that control. We wonder what’s going on up there in the cockpit, and this uncertainty can morph into outright fear. The same holds true for the cloud. Enterprises resist the switch to cloud because they worry about what’s happening inside those data centers. I hope to clarify that in this post.

The Mystery Of Cloud Storage Providers

Some of the mystery around cloud facilities arises from the fact that the public providers generally do not disclose their locations. They definitely won’t let you inside for a tour, either, and these are both great security policies. The secrecy of the location and the strong security perimeter both serve to protect the data stored within. And the truth is that the so-called clouds often have stronger physical security perimeters than the private data centers of large companies.

What goes on inside those walls is no mystery – as one example, Microsoft now offers a fascinating virtual tour of a typical Azure data center to show off its infrastructure. First off, the scale is impressive. The typical Microsoft data center can house hundreds of thousands of servers. Each one is designed to operate within a wider range of temperature and humidity levels to conserve as much energy as possible while also maintaining performance. In the event of a disturbance in the local power grid, the facilities have diesel generators and batteries ready to provide power, and Microsoft is working on replacing these backups with alternative energy sources as part of its commitment to carbon neutrality.

The simplicity of the design is startling. In 2011, Microsoft moved to a modular model to build out its facilities, relying on pre-manufactured systems with integrated power and networking. Each module is effectively a miniature data center in a box, and Microsoft deploys them by simply plugging them into the power, hooking them into the network, and letting them run. There are really only three basic connections – network, power and cooling. That is simpler than the desktop in your living room, and it is no accident. The simplicity reduces the risk of failure and human error.

What Happens To Your Files?

But what happens to your files once you shift to a cloud storage provider? Again, they do not fade into some nebulous construct. Once data is piped into an Azure facility, it is immediately replicated. A given chunk of data will move to a server within one rack, but it will also be copied to a separate failure zone within that facility, in case something goes wrong with that particular server or rack. Azure then replicates the data to another facility – one far enough away that your data will be safe even in the event of a major disaster at the first data center. Then it is also replicated within that second facility. Finally, there is a system overseeing this process, defining where the data goes and how to retrieve it as quickly and efficiently as possible. There is nothing cloudy about this process.

As for security, Microsoft does a great job of making sure your data is secure from the outside. Their security practices are in compliance with certain standards – a subject we will explore in more detail in my next post. Still, a fundamental concern is that your data is residing in another company’s data center. Microsoft has access to all those servers, and it is not their job to ensure that your data is safe in transmission, as it is moving to and from Azure. This is why Nasuni’s security model of encrypting all data with customer-controlled keys is so important to complete the security and privacy picture. With Nasuni, data is encrypted before it leaves your security perimeter. This encrypted data travels over a secure connection to the cloud, and since your company controls the encryption keys, no public cloud provider can access your data. Yes, it resides in their data center, but thanks to the encryption, the contents are inaccessible to the cloud provider.

It’s Time To Leave Storage To The Professionals

As people have thought about taking advantage of cloud resources, the fear of cloud has been a real obstacle. I understand – it is still a relatively new concept. But think again about the fear of flying. Maybe you don’t like the fact that you’re not in control, but does that mean you want to take the pilot’s seat? We leave flying to the professionals and we need to start thinking about storage the same way. The public clouds are the most efficient, powerful, resilient and secure data centers in the world, and they are yours to utilize.