The truth about the location of your social media data

Photo by Javier Segura on Unsplash. This might be a data centre.

A data centre is like that branded USB you got at the last tech conference. Also your SD card from your DSLR camera or your favourite CD. Kind of every medium that can hold information — just in super big. That’s where your data is held.

This is a non-technical article, explaining in layman’s terms what a data centre is and how it is relevant for us all. If you are a data centre technician or similar you might as well stop here and read some other posts I wrote. Or read ’til the end and share your wisdom on further details.

I saw this picture of you. I found it on Instagram. Or was it on Facebook? You live somewhere in the world and I live in Europe. But I saw this picture. You shared it publicly so you feel fine me seeing this picture. Or do you? How does it work that I can see this picture of you as we are not neighbours living next door?

That photo show light spots which might be were data centres are located in some of the big cities in the world. You can google data centre providers to get an idea of locations. Generally speaking, data centre are located all over the world.

Photo by NASA on Unsplash

Let’s start with what is a data centre in a bit more detail!

A data centre is like that USB stick you are carrying around but in really big. A data centre is used to store data as the name would suggest. Now if we are thinking of one person, this seems quite a bit over the top. Why do we need a centre to store data (A data centre can easily be the size of a football pitch with three floors or more)? Imagine all the posts that you have seen today on your favourite social media platform, the news platform or that web store selling stuff. That will be quite a lot more information and it will not fit on your USB stick. This is when you get those annoying pop-ups on your laptop “Data can’t be transferred. Storage limits”. This is why we need a centre.

Photo by imgix on Unsplash. This is how a rack can look like. This is part of a “massive USB stick”.

What is data?

I will certainly not try to write a scientific definition of what data is. Wikipedia will do a much better job than me. But in short, it says this: “Data are individual units of information.” For example the photo you posted on Instagram of the party last weekend. That is data. Why? Because it shows, for example, you and your friends sharing a cake for someone birthday. Information: People, cake, banners saying “Happy Birthday”, candles, party hats. Conclusion of the people seeing this picture, you went to a birthday party last weekend. Seeing this and coming to this conclusion provides us with a unit (a part/a piece) of information (we might not know from the picture the age of the person celebrating, the flavour of the cake etc.). And we only could come to this conclusion because we got data in the form of the picture shared by you. So with everything we share, we share information and create data.

Again, why a data centre?

If we would create data in a moderate and slow way, e.g. writing a letter to our grandma (I still do that, she doesn’t use social media), or taking analogue pictures, then we might not need data centres. But we don’t. We love to post our stuff, one of which is this article. And we love for other people to see it. Because we all do that, a USB stick is not enough. We need more. More storage. And also it would not be as convenient using a USB stick. Imagine you would still need to copy your holiday pictures on a USB stick, go to your friend’s house and then present these. The thought! Who has time for that? So we are sharing our data via platforms that are accessible from somewhere else.

Why can I see pictures of my friends in the US, when I live in Europe?

Good question. As explained a USB stick is not a very good solution. You would have to send it by post, it might get stuck in customs. Then it might reach you undamaged and you can view the content. Too slow. Too costly. Besides storing tons of data, a data centre has additional features. It has cables that connect this data centre to somewhere else in the world. There are indeed submarine cables. This is not a myth like Nessie, these actually exist (maybe Nessie does too, I am not sure). Submarine cables are made of specific material and are put in the sea by big boats. These cables reach different continents and this is how we can send data from one place to another. Imagine those submarine cables like a road. And the data centre in, let’s say America, like your beloved pub. Let’s call it the King’s arms. Obviously you have at least a second favourite pub, for this example, we shall call it the Queen’s Head. The Queen’s Head is data centre B in Europe.

For this example, you need to use your imagination as we obviously can’t just walk from America to Europe :) Let’s go on a pub crawl and start at the King’s arms (data centre in America). After a while, we have enough of it and leave (Data has been saved and made available). Then we take the road and go to the Queen’s Head (data centre in Europe). This is also how a data centre works, just that the road is a submarine cable. And data can travel faster than us human beings.

Why is data sometimes fast and sometimes slow?

This can have many factors, but one of them can be the material of the cable transporting data. As mentioned there are submarine cables. But these are not the only cables used to transport the data from one place to another. The submarine cables are just really used to connect the continents. Then the data will move onto other cables that are connected to submarine cables. For example cables in cities, in the countryside, maybe in your basement?

You might have seen an advertisement, saying things like super-fast fibre cable etc. What does this mean? Remember the road from the King’s arms to the Queen’s Head? Imagine we walk from one pub to the other. As both these pubs are on the main road, the pavement is very smooth, there is lots of light for us to see and it is segregated from motorised traffic. Now we decide to go to a more local pub that is off the main road, called a Bunch of Grapes. This pub promises delicious wine, so we want to go. Unfortunately, the road from the Queen’s Head to the Bunch of Grapes is not very well lit, it has tons of pot hols and we don’t have a segregated pavement which means we need to look out for cars. That makes the journey from pub b to pub c a lot more exhausting and challenging. Same with internet cables, depending on what material these are made from, the journey for data is easier or harder.

Excellent. Submarine cables sound like highways. Can I rewatch Game of Thrones connecting to HBO via a submarine cable?

I am not a submarine cable owner but I guess unfortunately not. Certain cables are used for large data volumes and are only provided to companies with lots of data traffic. Now you might say that watching GoT requires a lot of data traffic. That is in terms of HBO and their subscribers correct, but on an individual basis, it is not. Big companies with large data volumes are, for example, Facebook, Google, HBO, Spotify, Amazon and many others. So the submarine cables are more used to transport the data over long distances. Once the big distance is covered, the data goes onto other cables to travel the rest of the journey to you. Imagine taking a flight from London to Portland, Oregon. You might take the big flight first to Atlanta with a big, comfortable plane. But Atlanta to Portland counts as a domestic, short-distance flight. The conditions will be different.

So where is my data now?

That depends on what data we are talking about. Are you using social media? Where is the company from that created the platform you are using? If for example the company has been founded in America, then they have very likely data centres in America. But they don’t have to have them there.

Photo by Matthew Henry on Unsplash

You now know that there are cables that can send information from one place to another. So your favourite Social Media platform can be hosted (a data centre counts as a host and data is the guest, like when you are hosting a party in your house and your friends come along and make everything messy) in a data centre in Europe for example. A benefit might be that it is faster for you to get access to your data. Even if the concept of data travel seems odd, remember the road from one pub to another. Data needs to travel too. Also, there are quite complex data regulations which might force companies to store their data in certain areas in the world. Feel free to google these if you are interested further, here a starting point.

So much today on data centres and how travel of data works. I hope this was insightful and easy to understand. Feel free to ask questions on this and I will do my best to answer them. Obviously this only covered the surface of this topic as a data centre has many more features which we didn’t look into today. Data itself is more complex in reality than I described it here. But here we start! A unit of information to understand a data centre.

Originally published at on November 10, 2019.




Passionate about technology and Salesforce, running and sports lover | Contributor of the PM Library | Learning about different cultures every day!

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Stefanie Bialas

Stefanie Bialas

Passionate about technology and Salesforce, running and sports lover | Contributor of the PM Library | Learning about different cultures every day!

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