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Where does my data live?

When the early rumblings of cloud computing hit the industry wires, it was all new companies we had never heard of, emerging from the deep dark depths of Silicon Valley.

The Amazons and Googles of this world were toddlers compared to the grandfathers of technology, who had been providing software to the world since the 1970s, if not before. And, when it came to handing over sensitive, customer driven data, many businesses were hesitant to use these new kids on the block.

However, the tide has turned in the sea of technology that is cloud and now the forefathers of computing are catching up with the modern day trends.

One of the biggest stirs in the industry was Microsoft's entrance to the market with Office 365. The company's renowned productivity software, including Office, SharePoint, Exchange and Lync, would be made available in a completely new way.

Rather than paying upfront for long licences and spending hours installing it across internal systems, customers could sign up on a monthly basis and pay per user to access all of this software over the Internet.

Known as Software as a Service, or SaaS for short, the applications are run remotely (although local Office programs also form part of Office 365), the documents stored off-site and the cost savings stack up in the IT manager's pocket.

Companies know Microsoft and its tradition as a trusted provider of top notch office software, but any business would be mad not to consider the implications of what happens to their data when it is taken away from internal systems.

We answer the big questions on what happens to your data in the cloud and why Microsoft Office 365 is a SaaS solution you can trust.

Where is my data?

We should start by talking about where the data is held. Despite the ease of use that cloud computing provides, with customers able to access their data from anywhere in the world, regulations are growing in the UK and Europe as to where you are allowed to keep your data.

It is becoming more imperative to the European Union to keep customer data within the EU boundaries and Microsoft offers up its Dublin data centre so companies can keep to the rules. The data centre spans 570,000 sq/ft and is one of the company's third generation locations, built in 2009.

There is also a data centre in Amsterdam, ensuring there are two options for European customers if any incident stops the first location from working to its full potential.

Claudia Galvan, leader of the international programme management group at Microsoft, said other firms just didn't look at an international strategy and just focused on the technology. Her company is different.

"It is important to develop a global strategy despite competing priorities," she said. "Doing so can remove uncertainties and increase your sense of direction, predictability and accountability."

Deep inside the data centre

Dublin is close enough for comfort and sticks with the regulations as they stand regarding UK customers and data storage. But what about the technology used within the data centre?

The main push here was to be a green and efficient base for cloud computing. Using the cloud itself can save on energy consumption, from reducing the amount of inefficient servers running internally at a business to cutting the need for employees to travel for work. However, Microsoft was dedicated to not filling this gap by having an energy hungry data centre of its own.

In 2009 the company signed up to the EU Code of Conduct for Green Data Centres and opened its data centre with a Power Use Effectiveness (PUE) score of 1.25, comparing to the industry ideal of 1 and average of 2.

It uses outside air for cooling - one of the largest issues associated with any data centre - removing 38 per cent of energy consumption from the site and saving on 18 million litres of water per month.

It also uses state of the art server technologies, choosing hardware built with the green agenda in mind, and employs 24/7 monitoring to make sure the servers run to their best ability without drawing unnecessary power.

Microsoft works closely with the companies building the servers to ensure that any unnecessary components added for general use, but not for the specific workloads Microsoft plans to run on the hardware, are removed, increasing performance, productivity and, again, reducing energy consumption.

The servers are rack-optimised and use highly efficient components, such as specially designed power supplies and low power memory DIMMs, saving on average 12 watts per server - a significant saving when multiplied by tens of thousands of servers.

Jean-Philippe Courtois, president of Microsoft International, said: "Signing up to the EU Code of Conduct is just a small part of Microsoft's commitment to environmental sustainability, but with the projected growth of cloud computing it's important."

"We are also working with our network of partners, customers, environmental groups, industry groups, and leading environmental scientists and academics to drive global action on climate change and share best practice."

Safe and Secure

Now we know where the data is held, the state of the art technologies that run it and the green benefits of using the cloud, but the most important factor for any company will be how safe and secure its data is, wherever it is stored.

Microsoft uses the Online Services Security and Compliance (OSSC) Information Security Management System (ISMS) framework to ensure high levels of security for all of its online services. It also employs a team to regularly evaluate the framework's effectiveness to ensure the on-going development of cloud computing is reflected in its regulation of data centres.

Microsoft then runs three programmes - Information Security Management Forum, Risk Assessment Programme and Information Security Policy Programme - to identify risk and develop policies to protect data centres providing cloud services like Office 365.

Privacy is a big deal for Microsoft, and the company released a white paper detailing how it included privacy at every stage of a cloud service, from design to deployment.

"To create a trusted environment for customers, Microsoft develops software, services and processes with privacy in mind," it read.

"Microsoft teams are vigilant in maintaining compliance with global privacy laws and the company's privacy practices are derived, in part, from privacy laws from around the world."

Even with the best will in the world around security and privacy, downtime can occur and cloud providers need strong back-up and recovery solutions to protect uses from any data loss or being unable to access their systems for any period of time.

Microsoft's Business Continuity Programme works to address any issues around these areas and help develop the company's protection policies as new cloud technologies come to the market.

"Microsoft uses an ongoing management and governance process to ensure that the necessary steps are taken to identify the impact of potential losses, maintain viable recovery strategies and plans, and ensure continuity of products and services," said Microsoft.

"Knowing all the resources - the people, equipment, and systems - needed to execute a task or perform a process is essential to creating a relevant plan for when disaster strikes."

Microsoft has a well-oiled process to quickly address any failures in its data centre, otherwise known as Security Incident Management, and by pairing that with its two objectives for recovery, the company is proud to boast a 99.9 per cent service level agreement (SLA).

Rest assured

Microsoft has been in the computing game for a very long time and cloud is nothing new to the technological minds at one of the biggest companies in the world.

It understands that customers need something that is easy to use, with flexible payment schemes and scalable to their requirements. The familiarity of the Office suite through a cloud model gives them that.

But, there is a lot more to it. Adopting a cloud computing model for such important functions as email or telecoms, also provided by Office 365, means you need to know the data centre running the applications is cost effective, reliable and, most of all, secure.

With a modern build data centre and reams of people employed just to make sure the security is in great condition, Microsoft can put user's minds at ease as well. The technology is also on hand to solve any mishaps and its proven track record of 99.9 per cent up-time means your data is ready to be viewed, whichever country, time zone or environment you are in.

"The coordinated and strategic application of people, processes, and technology allows Microsoft to adapt to the rapid changes happening within the cloud infrastructure and in the marketplace for online services while still maintaining Microsoft's commitment to delivering a trustworthy computing experience for customers," concluded Microsoft.

And, with the questions around the cloud and Office 365 answered, now it's time to start reaping the benefits.