Where are we storing our data? More importantly, is it safe?

John Pientka

Where are we storing our data?

Human knowledge now doubles every twelve hours. That includes a ton of data about you. We live in a time of unforeseen disruptions. Where are we storing our data? More importantly, is it safe?

The definition of “Exponential”: A doubling, tripling or even faster growth over a particular period of time. Futurists and techies love the term. One futurist, R. Buckminster Fuller, estimated that up until 1900 human knowledge doubled approximately every century. By 1945 it was doubling every 25 years, and by 1982 it was doubling every 12-13 months. IBM estimated that in 2020 human knowledge would be doubling every 12 hours. Just think about that. Welcome to 2020!

New knowledge is being created by writing, scientific, engineering and clinical efforts. But, we personally shed data at a staggering rate. Wired captures it best: “Personal data is often compared to oil—it powers today’s most profitable corporations, just like fossil fuels energized those of the past. But the consumers it’s extracted from often know little about how much of their information is collected, who gets to look at it, and what it’s worth. Every day, hundreds of companies you may not even know exist gather facts about you, some more intimate than others. That information may then flow to academic researchers, hackers, law enforcement, and foreign nations—as well as plenty of companies trying to sell you stuff.”

Increasingly, the data is stored in the cloud. In 2018 IDC predicted that by 2025 half of all the world’s data would be housed in the cloud. Let’s see if we can grasp that mentally. First, the “cloud” is just a toddler technologically. Hard to believe but it will only be about 20 years old in 2025. Second, how much data are we talking about? These comparisons are always tough but try this. If we loaded that cloud data onto Blue-Ray Video Discs, we would have a stack that would reach to the moon 23 times!

Is all this data safe? Imagine if the government could not verify your personal identification information. You might legally cease to exist. How about your health history? You are whisked unconscious to an emergency room. The attendants don’t know you are allergic to certain antibiotics or that you have a particular medical history. The lack of your medical information may mean life or death.

We already know your data is not secure. You may even been the “beneficiary” of one of your financial institutions buying you a year’s worth of credit account monitoring because your records were breached. We are getting smarter and better at security but the cat-and-mouse game is probably going to go on for a long time. We may not like it but we are coming to live with it.

But what about the other threat, especially with all that critical data in the cloud – what about if the data was not just stolen (copied) but gone? What about a Black Swan?

From the New York Times: A Black Swan “is an event with the following three attributes. First, it is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Second, it carries an extreme impact. Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable.”

The cloud should be immune to a Black Swan event. It is architected from the get go to be resilient and self-healing. It has all sorts of hardware and software mechanisms whose sole purpose is to never let it go down. Amazon Web Services claims that its cloud storage is designed to provide 99.999999999% durability of objects over a given year.

This durability level corresponds to an average annual expected loss of 0.000000001% of objects. For example, if you store 10,000,000 objects with Amazon S3, you can on average expect to incur a loss of a single object once every 10,000 years. Wow! That’s longer than human civilization has been around. Surely, your can breathe easy about storing your legal and medical information – Ummm, Maybe!

Cloud providers don’t like to talk about it but every year they experience outages that last from hours to days. So what do you do? Play the odds or invest in multiple clouds? How about keeping it on your own local hard drive – the equivalent of putting your cash under the mattress instead of in the bank. In the end, we are stuck with some degree of risk.

Not to worry – here is something to make you feel better. You are reading this just a few days after Leap Day in 2020. Back in 2012, Microsoft’s cloud – Azure – was brought down for more than 12 hours as the result of a software bug triggered by the Feb. 29 leap-year date that prevented its systems from calculating the correct time.

Feel safe? See any Black Swans?

By John Pientka

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