Your Online Data is Stored in These Amazing Places

William Elcock

What would we do without the world wide web? We use it for practically everything these days. From searching for information to finding directions and even catching up with friends, the possibilities it offers are seemingly limitless. Indeed, we do a whole lot of things online these days. As you will have realized, many websites offer the facility for users to create accounts.

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Racks of drives, with all your data | Shutterstock

With services like Facebook, you probably have many pictures and videos uploaded to your account. Moreover, you will probably have several files stored on any cloud service you have signed up for.

In case you’re wondering where I’m going with this, the point is, every online activity generates data. This is something that we may not think about as everything seems to load up kind of magically when we’re online. This happens in spite of the data we’re accessing not being stored locally on our personal computers. This data can’t be imaginary however, it must be stored somewhere right?

Every day 2.5 Quintillion bytes of data are created. That’s 2,500,000,000,000,000,000 bytes of data.

The beauty of the internet is that it allows us to access vast amounts of information on the world wide web from a device whose total internal storage pales in comparison to the total size of the web.

Note: Just to be clear, the Internet is a gigantic network of computers. The world wide web on the other had is a repository of multimedia in the form of webpages. You need access to the internet in order to use the world wide web. See more on this here.

So where is this data stored? There are physical locations called data centers spread across the globe where the world wide web lives.

This is quite intriguing and you will probably agree is deserving of a closer look. So let’s get to it!

Overview of a Data Center

A data center is essentially a collection of servers and other relevant computing equipment where information is stored and managed on a relatively large scale. Some organizations have such facilities for their internal use only.

However, the data centers that we will be focusing on are geared towards supporting portions of the world wide web.

A data center is essentially a collection of servers and other relevant computing equipment where information is stored and managed on a relatively large scale.

The major components of a data center can be broken down into four major components which are:

  • The Information Technology (IT) equipment
  • The electrical framework
  • The cooling framework
  • The physical plant or building

IT Equipment

There are four basic components which make up the IT equipment in a data center. These are servers, storage equipment such as hard disks, networking equipment such as network switches and the racks where these things are mounted.

Servers are fundamentally the same as your personal computer. But they are more powerful. They run the software that is necessary for running our websites and handling the oodles of data flowing around. Take a look at some of the servers in Google’s Douglas County, Georgia Data Center.

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Servers mounted in racks in Google’s Douglas County, Georgia Data Center | Google

Things like photos uploaded to a website will be found on storage equipment. This is much like what happens when you save a photo on your own computer. In this case however, you probably have no idea where the hard-drive with your online photo is! Backups of important data are also made to a digital tape.

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Digital tape backup in Berkeley County, South Carolina | Google

Networking equipment controls the transfer of information between servers as well as to the outside of the data center.

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Ethernet switches in the Berkeley data center | Google

Finally, there are racks where the servers, networking equipment and storage equipment are mounted. Racks allow for easy access and servicing of the other components of the IT equipment and also ensure that everything is neatly organized thus maximizing the use of space.

Electrical Framework

A data center needs electricity to function. Electricity fuels the data center to run continuously without interruption even in the case of a power outage. This is necessary to ensure that data is always accessible. In order to achieve this, the proper framework must be put into place.

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Power distribution along steel beams in Google’s Council Bluffs, Iowa Data Center | Google

Electricity is usually provided by the electric utility. In the case of an outage, the electricity providing duties are automatically switched over to backup generators thanks to an automatic transfer switch (ATS).

However, there is a delay between the generators fully kicking in after an outage. To compensate for this, uninterruptible power supplies ensure that electricity is provided during this transition period.

As you can imagine, the energy demands of a data center are quite significant due to their scale and 24/7 operation.

Cooling Framework

The cooling demands for a data center are tremendous. The IT equipment in a data center gives off a massive amount of heat, making cooling essential for the efficient running of a data center. Complex cooling systems are responsible for regulating the temperature within a data center.

One of the most important and visible components within the data center itself is the Computer Room Air Conditioner (CRAC). A CRAC circulates the cool air which it produces around hot data center IT equipment. After the cold air passes around the equipment it becomes hot. The flow of air in a data center is controlled such that the hot air is returned to the CRACs which then cool down the hot air.

This cycle is ongoing and ensures that the temperature within a data center remains optimal for the equipment to function correctly.

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Tanks such as this can hold up to 240, 000 gallons of water used for cooling the data center | Google

Physical Plant

The building housing the data center equipment should not be taken for granted. A data center building should be structurally sound and secure. This is necessary to protect the equipment in the case of things like bad weather.

Data security is also critical not only in terms of software protection but security personal are present at all times at data centers in order to protect the building and its contents.

Additionally, only persons with a high level of clearance are allowed into data centers in the first place.

Notable Data Centers

Since we are talking about notable data centers, a great place to start is with the largest data center in the world. Pictured below is the Lakeside Technology Center located at 350 East Cermak Road in Chicago.

It is owned by Digital Realty Trust and it serves a wide range of customers. It takes up a whopping grand total of 1.1 million square feet. Click here if you wish to learn more about this data center.

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Lakeside Technology data center in Chicago is the world’s largest data center | Global Dots

The Lakeside Technology Center may be the largest data center facility but Google’s collection of data centers is quite impressive as well. Google employs a number of novel techniques in order to keep their data centers running like well oiled machines. Thanks to this, we have seamless access to Google services 24/7.

Google’s collection of data centers is quite impressive.

Google’s Data Centers

Google custom builds their servers so that the fit the exact needs of the company.

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One of Google’s custom designed servers | CNET

Google’s data centers are designed to operate effectively at a higher temperature than other data centers. This allows for them to cut down on the amount of energy they use for cooling.

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Hundreds of fans funnel hot air from the server racks into a cooling unit | Google

The software that Google has developed to control their incredible collection of servers is so dynamic that it allows them to act as one system. One change made in one area is seen across the board.

You should also note that Google has an amazing team of Site Reliability Engineers (SREs) who work at Google’s campuses across the globe who subject the data centers to rigorous testing to ensure that they are truly resilient and reliable.

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Google engineers at work in St. Ghislain, Belgium | Google

If you are interested in knowing Google’s data centers more intimately, you can find out more about them here.

Facebook’s data centers are also pretty awesome.

Final Thoughts

Online data from the web is stored in data centers spread throughout the world. These centers have become increasingly important especially in recent years with the world’s population relying more and more on the web.

Data centers will only continue to improve. Increasing data center energy efficiency is especially important. Several data centers have also implemented renewable energy solutions.

This is necessary in order to reduce the environmental impact of these centers. However, initiatives like Google running their data centers slightly hotter than usual are already helping to save energy. The importance of data centers is unquestionable and they will continue to make their mark on our personal lives for years to come.

ALSO READ: 5 Influential People in the World of Science & Tech Speaking Against AI

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William Elcock

Written By

William Elcock

William has been helping friends troubleshoot tech problems for several years and thus made the natural progression into tech blogging. In addition to consumer electronics William also has a vested interest in various renewable energy topics.