They don’t look like much—large, beige, windowless buildings in office parks conveniently located near high-tension voltage lines. Unless you knew what to look for, you’d be hard pressed to identify a data center from the highway. But the bare outside tells nothing of the story within: tens of thousands of computers running 24-7, sophisticated security systems that track every movement within the building, the absolute highest-tech smoke detectors running laser beams under the floors and detecting fires before they break out. All of that technology working for a singular purpose: to protect your data.
But the real question is, how do they work?
I recently had the chance to talk with William Stevens, an engineer at one of Norton’s data centers. Will explained to me that his data center was only one of many that Norton keeps. As we talked, I began to get a better sense as to how they worked. One of the first things Will told me is that although there are literally tons of machines running inside of a data center, I really need to think of them as one machine. It’s all one system working together, storing a massive amount of data under a single roof.
The purpose of a data center is singular: to store user data. But that’s not as simple as it might sound. Anyone who’s had a hard drive fail knows that losing data can be catastrophic. A single picture from years ago, a single email, a single Word document can make the difference between a good day and a terrible one. In a massive data center, hard drives fail all the time. Not only that, but the computer’s power supplies fail as well. That’s why there’s a team dedicated to nothing but hardware replacement. As hard drives fail, a system alerts the team to when and where in the building the failure occurred. The team is then able to pull brand new devices out and replace them on the fly.
What I wanted to know is how can it be that with constant hardware failure, the customer’s data is never lost? Will explained one of the biggest advantages a data center has over you hard drive at home: every single piece of data is stored on multiple computers. If a hard drive with your data on it breaks at home, you’ve lost the one copy. But in a data center, your data might be on several computers. Not only that, but your data is also stored inside multiple data centers. Which means that even if an entire data center loses Internet access or power, it’s simply a matter of switching over to a completely redundant second center in another state. What that means for you is that it’s incredibly difficult to ever lose a file once it goes into a cloud data center.
Since protecting user storage is the number one goal of any successful data center, it makes sense that activity within is severely restricted. Only one person can enter at a time, and they require not only their access card but scan their fingerprint to access the center. Visitors are absolutely not allowed in under any circumstances. Inside, every step is taken to ensure a clean and safe environment for the computers. The air is filtered so that not even a particle of dust will disrupt the machines, and absolutely no food is allowed inside the building. Every inch of the building is covered by cameras, and a security team keeps an eye on things 24-7.
There’s more to data center security than just restricting physical access. Attacks over the Internet are unfortunately common—there will always be hackers trying to get into your personal data. Thankfully, the modern data center has several ways of dealing with these would-be thieves. First, all data inside the center is unreadable to anyone without the right keys, so even if data was taken out the hacker would have the equivalent of your document in a dead language, impossible to translate. Second, high-tech Internet monitoring software alerts and tracks all computing activity. If something seems amiss, engineers are immediately notified that something abnormal is going on so they can take a look. Third, the engineers at a data center have a technology that allows them to send unauthorized connections into a “black hole.” The black hole means that any attempts to access the data is blocked—the hacker cannot see any computers inside the center, and is instead left staring into a void.
The fact is, data centers are the modern versions of the factory floor. The noise of the hard drives spinning inside is deafening and workers are required to wear ear protection when on the floor. Teams are constantly switching out parts and a massive air conditioning system keeps the place at a constant, cold temperature. They are industrial places as much as they are the very height of computing technology, and they are the future of the Internet—high-tech, secure storage of your personal data that’s always available.