What is “Cloud” and “the Internet” anyway?

What is “Cloud” and “the Internet” anyway?


During a recent conversation with a long standing customer of Pace Insights, it became apparent that they were uncertain what ‘cloud storage’ and ‘the internet’ actually were, and what these terms really meant.

Our customer is one of the most technically aware and competent people we work with, so we were surprised that this was in any way fuzzy to him.

However, upon reflection we realised perhaps this was not unusual. After all with the pace of technological change and commercial pressures we’re all exposed to today, how could anyone reasonably be expected to have a consistent global understanding of all the technology now so easily available to all of us?

In addition, with all the legislation around protecting personal data, it is increasingly important we all have at least a cogent understanding of the basics.

I promised to send him a few links and explanatory notes to help so I thought I’d share them here too.

Luckily, it’s quite simple so here is a quick introduction to the ‘cloud’ and the real ‘internet’.



So, some clever guys back in the 1990’s invented the term “Cloud computing” as an analogy for the Internet because, like the internet, “clouds have no borders.”

Great. Then some clever marketing types got hold of this and painted pictures of fluffy clouds, with ones and zeros merrily floating back and forth like digital worker bees, assimilating and disseminating information at an ever more astonishing pace.

The reality, however, is a bit different.

These marketing images are great to look at, and certainly give a basic indication of what is happening, but our data is certainly not floating about somewhere above our heads.

In fact, it’s mainly travelling back and forth on industrial estates, below ground or deep in the oceans of the globe.

All this involves some pretty impressive engineering, which obviously here at Pace Insights we are big fans of !



The internet is made up of a special kind of computer called a server.

These are not really any different to your normal PC , except that they are designed to run constantly, 24/7, 365 days a year. This means the data flow is never interrupted, and their vast and ever increasing storage capacity means they are well equipped to help us manage our increasingly data-centric lives.

They are warehoused in massive buildings called data centres:

Here is a link to Facebooks new $1bn data centre. They’ve got half a dozen around the world with about 200k+ servers!

They also have advanced hardware to enable them to easily connect to other servers, forming what we know as a network.

Connect them with an agreed way of talking to each other and you’ve got the Internet.

The internet therefore is simply a vast network of servers connected together.


You mean … like, with actual cables?


All the (millions) of servers that form the internet are connect by physical cables.

These are fibre optic, about 3 inches in diameter and spread all over the worlds sea beds. A crazy thought, but true.

The cable is laid by boats like this:

Here’s a picture of the cable reel – note actual man standing on it for scale !

Cool engineering.

There are lots of cables – the longest is 39,000 kilometres long and took 3 years to complete.

Here is another link, to an animation of all the worlds fibre optic cables that power the internet.

Impressive….and 99% of the world’s internet traffic is transmitted by them.

Not a fluffy cloud in sight.

Clearly there’s more to it – it is technology after all – but really not that much more.


Brief History of Cloud Services

Facebook is unusual having it’s own data centres.

These days most companies will rent this capability from several large cloud providers – Google, Microsoft and Amazon.

Yes Amazon. As in the shopping website.

They kind of started todays cloud services and they’re the biggest player.

The genesis of all this came when they began allowing others to rent their computers and storage capability.

The story goes something like this.

Amazon, like a lot of other companies, do most of their business at Christmas so they invested in lots of computers to ensure they had extra capacity at Christmas time.

During the rest of the year those computers were not really being utilised but were still costing money to run and maintain.

Amazon decided to rent out their spare capacity to other organisations to cover the costs. As you can imagine, this has somewhat taken off and AWS is now a multi-billion dollar business in its own right.

Here is link to a video about AWS and how, amongst other things like making their own hardware, they are expanding their cloud capacity at a massive pace – in fact the equivalent capacity of the entire $9bn 2015 AWS business everyday. 


Why this is important

Taking off my engineering cape for a moment, the reason it’s important is because despite the huge physical distances, your data takes just split seconds to travel around this network.

This means your data could be on the other side of the world before you’ve even read this sentence.

So consequently the issue with this is that when you use a cloud storage solution you’re not necessarily in control of where your data will end up, and a particular issue when handling personal data is that this can put you in conflict with the applicable legislative climate.

Here is a link to the Google compliance policy on data storage and their data storage location offer.

It’s clearly designed to reassure, but read it carefully as if you use their services the reality is you’re never going to be precisely sure where your data is.

Pragmatically, this may not be an issue and realistically there is little to be done about it as we become ever more connected but the purpose here is really to make sure everyone is aware of exactly how it works.


In summary

The key point is, we don’t really know where out data is if we are using these services.

With some research you can find out where the data centres are, and with some cloud services you can also specify which part of the world you want your data stored in.

How you deal with this will be individual to your organisation and your data, but hopefully you now have a clearer understanding of exactly what the internet is, what cloud services really are and what things you might need to consider when you or your teams are using these systems.




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