A quest for where the data is stored in the cloud

Cnn.com has an article by John D. Sutter who tries to find where his data goes in the cloud.  I feel sorry for the poor guy trying to find answers and not know the first rule of data centers is '”we don’t talk about data centers and where they are, let alone what data is in the data center.”

The following parts is when I felt the guys pain.

I was curious and I wanted to find the scattered bits of my online life before dumping everything on my laptop onto the Web.

So I decided to go on a scavenger hunt into the cloud.

Before I started the search, when I thought about cloud computing, this is the image that came to mind: a giant cartoon cloud just slurped information off of my computer like magic. My files just floated in the sky until I wanted them back.

Video: What is cloud computing?

The cloud doesn't work like that. It's made up of a massive and growing network of data centers, which are huge warehouses full of computers. They store and process information from all around the world, largely in secret.

Then he finally connected with Rich Miller who helped him a bit.  Except he realized he was kind of a clueless.

I found it shocking that the gut of the cloud, an image I found so soft and quaint, was actually comprised of an enormous and ever-growing network of machines.

But apparently lots of people already knew this.

"All the clouds live in data centers," Rich Miller, editor of a prominent cloud-computing blog called Data Center Knowledge, told me. "There's always hardware involved, and bricks and mortar. ... It's not a fluffy cloud. It's living in someone's building."

Awesome. So all I needed to do to find my family photos and the rest of my data was to call up the data center where it lives and go there, right?

Wrong. I quickly learned tours of the cloud aren't easy to come by.

I want a tour of a data center.  Let’s call Google.

Google, which has most of my sensitive data, like e-mail, calendars, to-do lists and documents, declined an interview request for this story. A spokeswoman said the company doesn't give tours either. Go figure.

Excited he gets a tour of an IBM data center.

Dismayed, I started turning to companies who don't have my data, just hoping to get a sense of how this system worked. IBM offered to give me a tour, maybe because, like me, it's trying to break into the cloud world.

and , finds a PUE of over 2.0.  Hopefully the IBM rep didn’t try to explain PUE to him.

Inside, I found rows of black, refrigerator-sized computer towers, 4,000 of them in all. They buzzed and whirred so loudly that I had to lean in to hear my tour guides. In front of the towers, grates and pinholes in the floor pump out frigid air to keep the machines from overheating. The computers breathe this air in and then exhale air as hot as a hair dryer's.

I'm told the cooling bill here costs more than running the computers.

So, he asks more questions and gets more confused.

As I walked around the center, IBM employees did their best to explain this hyper-complicated system. They rattled off machine types, specs and technical details faster than I could write them down.

I confess that I left the IBM tour not feeling much better about the safety of my data. Not that there seemed to be anything wrong with their cloud computing center. The IBM staff was friendly and helpful. The machines looked nice.

Maybe he is a snipe hunt.

A snipe hunt, a form of wild-goose chase that is also known as a fool's errand, is a type of practical joke that involves experienced people making fun of credulous newcomers by giving them an impossible or imaginary ta

So maybe he is asking the wrong question.

But the more I mulled over my failing scavenger hunt, the more I thought that maybe I was asking the wrong question. Perhaps it doesn't matter where my data is, just that there's some way for me to get a sense of how well it's managed.

And, then he realizes maybe he doesn’t own the data.

"Terms of service" agreements offer some details on free services. But, after reading several, it's still unclear to me who owns my data, if I can ever delete it from some sites and what would happen if any of these companies goes bankrupt. In response to an e-mail question about what would happen to Facebook data if the site closed, a company spokeswoman wrote, "The business is doing well and continuing to grow."

Who do you trust?  He talks to Microsoft’s Brian Hall.  Note: I was interested in what Brian had to say as I worked with Brian on Windows XP.

Still, without information, it's hard to know who to trust.

That makes it easy to fall back on flimsy methods of comparison, like going with a brand you already know. I'm sure this is how I ended up with so much data on Google's servers. It's a huge company. Billions use their search. Tens of millions save files with Gmail. They've got to know what's up, right?

That's exactly what the big cloud companies hope you will think. Microsoft's general manager of Windows Live, Brian Hall, told me brand recognition is the best way for people to compare services.

"Consumers, they don't really care if there are 9,000 data centers or two data centers as long as they have confidence that we're going to protect their data and they'll have access to it when they want to have access to it," he said. (In case you're wondering, Hall said Microsoft has "between 10 and 100 data centers" worldwide. Really specific.)

After all this, his conclusion is good.

The most important thing I realized on this search, though, was rather basic:

The cloud is not some fluffy ball of magic, it's an energy-sucking and fallible machine.

One I'll be more cautious before trusting.