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The cloud: A tsunami of data is headed your way

Tiffany Champion, Production Associate
Tuesday, 17 Sep 2013 | 12:52 PM ET
Colin Anderson | Blend Images | Getty Images

Not so long ago, a crashed hard drive or a stolen phone meant saying goodbye to everything—pictures, financial records, projects.

But now, there's a cushion—the cloud.

Anything that isn't stored locally, on a personal computer or external hard drive, is held in the vast network of remote servers known as the cloud. If you've ever sent an email via Gmail, posted pictures on Facebook, or streamed your favorite movie on Netflix, you've used it. And, while it might sound like a vague, tech buzzword, the cloud is fast becoming indispensable to the 2.7 billion computer users around the world—and the businesses they interact with.


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That's where Switch comes in.

"Whenever you want to use the Internet, whether you're banking online or bidding on an auction on eBay or whatever it is, it's working when you're ready to use it," said Missy Young, executive vice president of co-location at Switch. "Companies depend on Switch to provide continuous uptime."

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Switch is a data center that's home to billions of dollars' worth of servers, storing masses of information. Its "SuperNAP" facilities in Las Vegas store data for hundreds of businesses, from Fortune 500's like eBay and Sony to mom and pop florists to governmental agencies.

All this tech doesn't actually belong to Switch: It's charged solely with watching over it. And with companies' billions on the line, the stakes are high.

"[We make sure] it's never off," said Young. "It never overheats. Security's never breached. It's always connected to the Internet."

The data center is roughly the size of seven football fields, and 100 megawatts of power keep it up and running—enough to power several large casinos. Even Switch's desert location is part of the business strategy.

"This is actually considered to be the safest place in the country," said Young. "There's absolutely no history here of any damaging natural disasters ever to strike southern Nevada."

These clouds are doing much more than holding on to your wedding videos or Facebook likes. Companies, through their websites, are able to collect millions of data points about Internet users. This big data is stored away on servers; what you click on, what products you look at, what time you're most likely to make a purchase. All those silly questions you've asked Siri? They're all saved in the cloud.

"What these innovations in technology are allowing companies to do is to take data and then put context around it," said Jason Mendenhall, Switch's executive vice president. "And when we put context around it, that's when it becomes meaningful and it turns into knowledge."

That means tracking online shopping habits to tailor your ads and, on a larger scale, compiling big picture trends across industry specific clouds like health care. Alone, your medical record doesn't do much, said Mendenhall. By putting these records on the cloud and analyzing that data, you are able to see patterns that might otherwise go undetected.

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"All of a sudden we can start to predict what's going to happen in the future based upon a certain series of traits," said Mendenhall. "That prediction will allow doctors and pharmaceutical companies and technicians to better treat us as individuals."

As people become increasingly connected, they generate more and more data. Mendenhall estimates that people will generate 4.3 exabytes of data in their lifetime.

Exabytes are larger than megabytes, gigabytes, terrabytes, and even petabytes.

"The entire written works of man, from the dawn of time until today, in every single language, all compiled together is estimated to be 50 petabytes of data," explained Young. "This one cage just for eBay contains 100 petabytes of data. Twice the written works of man."

With this incoming tsunami of information comes the question of how to put it to work.

"We see what the companies are putting in place to be able to handle it," Mendenhall said. "And we see them taking those steps to be prepared for this wave that's coming. They have to do it in advance. It's not just one day someone says, 'Hey, we're going to collect data about coffee makers, and then magically it works.'"

And, as big data becomes an even bigger business, data storage companies like Switch are at the forefront of this evolution.

"It represents the promise that technology has been talking about over the past 15, 20 years. And now it's actually starting to come to reality," Mendenhall said.

—By CNBC's Tiffany Champion.

From refrigerators to freight trains, CNBC's "Rise of the Machines" shows you how a new generation of connected machines can now speak to us, and each other. "Rise of the Machines" premieres Wednesday, Sept. 18 at 9 pm ET/PT.

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  • Melissa Lee is the host of CNBC's “Fast Money” and “Options Action.”