The Truth About Cloud Storage and Its Future

By: Greg Fish
Steve Jobs at 2011 Apple World Wide Developers Conference
The late Steve Jobs introduces Apple's iCloud storage system at the 2011 Apple World Wide Developers Conference. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

When many of us upload a file to the cloud, we tend to think it will be there forever, ready to be downloaded and accessed on command, or at least when you have a good internet connection.

But the truth about the cloud is that it's actually just a bunch of other hard drives, and your files are really only accessible as long as your provider stays in business and the data formats in which your files are saved are still used by existing software. In addition, keeping all those files at your fingertips takes a lot more thought and effort than you may have considered.


Sure, all digital files are just bits and bytes differentiated by how they're organized, but the reality isn't quite that simple. For example, a basic text file has an extension indicating it's a text file and is read using either the ACSII or Unicode standard that allows the bits 01101000 01101001 to be read as "hi." Similar rules apply to more complex file formats. That all works great, right up until the format falls out of favor, the software is abandoned or both.

After all, when was the last time you played a song using RAM or WMA formats? How many .mov or .wmv files do you download to watch videos? With technology moving away from proprietary media formats like Real Media, Windows Media and QuickTime to shared standards like MPEG-4 and MP3, software to play back those file types is either obsolete or doomed to obsolescence. Even current formats aren't safe. Fraunhofer IIS, the foundation responsible for giving us the MP3 format, stepped away from the currently ubiquitous file type for music and has advocated for the adoption of formats like AAC and FLAC.


The Future for Your Outdated Files

Clearly, we'll need to preserve the ability to read or automatically convert outdated formats to maintain continuity of access as more people rely on cloud storage and backup, adding decades' worth of data to hard drives on servers in sprawling data centers. Online converters will likely tackle this job, although what that really means is that users will upload a file to a server, the server will do the complicated job of reformatting the structure of the bits and bytes in that file, add a new extension, and allow the users to download the result in the desired format when they need this data.

Look for this to become more common with newer generations of formats slowly but surely being adopted by large enough software ecosystems. After more than a decade of popular, widespread cloud storage and petabytes of data uploaded by hundreds of millions of people, we're certainly due for some of those files' formats to become obsolete.


Can I Have My Data Now?

So how do all those petabytes of data we're uploading to cloud providers stay secure and accessible? After all, computers age, and servers crash, die and get replaced. How do data centers deal with both routine and catastrophic problems while maintaining the 99.9 percent uptime they promise to users?

Well, the answer is more servers, specifically failover servers that shadow their active counterparts through periodic scheduled synchronization and come online when necessary. But sometimes, even these backups aren't enough, and data centers turn to magnetic tape. Yes, far from being a relic of early computing history, magnetic tapes are not only alive and well as a storage medium, they're thriving. And while it may seem weird that your movie shot on the latest smartphone with 4K quality will probably end up residing in a storage locker, backed up on a technology you probably thought was only used in dusty government offices and exhibited in museums, that's the strange reality.


Ultimately, cloud storage is about having your files accessible no matter what happens or what device you use. Magnetic tapes can be encrypted and keep your files safe for 30 years without any deterioration or artifacts whereas hard drives of servers can fail in as little as five years. The reason why magnetic tapes went out of style is because loading them and reading data from them is a hassle. It's a slow, complicated process compared to the incredible speed of modern solid state hard drives. But if they're only used to store files in the event of enough failover servers dying, or for legal compliance reasons, they make a perfectly viable alternative to external hard drives, which also tend to fail in roughly five years.

So, the bottom line here is that cloud storage providers' ease of use and ubiquity hides a complicated and less than glamorous system for storing your data on countless hard drives and magnetic tapes, merely presenting you with an easy to use drag-and-drop fa├žade. That said, the result has proven to be extremely useful, and the data centers involved are run by experts who understand the challenges involved and have been consistently rising to meet them. So as long as your provider is still in business, chances are that your data is safe and easily accessible, backed up on dozens of servers. And maybe even a magnetic tape or two in a climate-controlled basement.


Frequently Answered Questions

Which divides a single physical disk into multiple logical drives called volumes?
A disk partition.