Data Storage Beyond the Hardware: 4 Surprising Questions

A decorative image showing a several types of data storage medium, like a floppy disk, a USB stick, a CD, and the cloud.

We’ve gathered you together here today to address some of weirdest questions (and answers) about everyone’s favorite topic: data storage. 

From the outside looking in, it’s easy to think it’s a subject that is as dry as Ben Stein in “Ferris Beuller’s Day Off”. But, given that everyday functions are increasingly moving to the internet, data storage is, in some ways, the secret backbone of modern society. 

Today it’s estimated that there are over 8,000 data centers (DCs) in the world, built on a variety of storage media, connected to various networks, consuming vast amounts of power, and taking up valuable real estate. Plus, the drive technology itself brings together engineering foci affected by (driving?) everything from clean room technology to DNA research. 

Fertile ground for strange, surprising questions, certainly. So, without further ado, here are some of our favorite questions about data storage. 

1. Does a Hard Drive Weigh More When It’s Full?

Short answer: for all practical purposes, no. Long answer: technically yes, but it’s such a miniscule amount that you wouldn’t be able to measure it. Shout out to David Zaslavsky for doing all the math, and here’s the summary. 

As Einstein famously hypothesized, e = mc2. If it’s been a while since you took physics, that formula defined is that energy is equal to mass multiplied by the speed of light squared. Since energy is defined by mass, then, we can infer that energy has a weight, even if it’s negligible. 

Now, hard drives record data by magnetizing a thin film of ferromagnetic material. Basically, you’re forcing the atoms in a magnetic field to align in a different direction. And, since magnetic fields have differing amounts of energy depending on whether they’re aligned or antialigned, technically the weight does change. According to David’s math, it’d be approximately 10-14 g for a 1TB hard drive. 

2. How Loud Is the Cloud?

In the past, we’ve talked about how heavy the Backblaze Storage Cloud is, and we’ve spent some ink on how loud a Backblaze DC is. All that noise comes from a combination of factors, largely cooling systems. Back in 2017, we measured our DCs at approximately 78dB, but other sources report that DCs can reach up to 96dB

When you’re talking about building your own storage, my favorite research data point was one Reddit user’s opinion:

A screenshot of a comment from Reddit user EpicEpyc that says:

I think a good rule of thumb will be "if you care about noise, don't get rackmount equipment" go a with a used workstation from your favorite brand and your ears will thank you

But, it’s still worth investing in ways to reduce the noise—if not for worker safety, then to reduce the environmental impact of DCs, including noise pollution. There are a wealth of studies out there connecting noise pollution to cardiovascular disease, hypertension, high stress levels, sleep disturbance, and good ol’ hearing loss in humans. In our animal friends, noise pollution can disrupt predator/prey detection and avoidance, echolocation, and interfere with reproduction and navigation. 

The good news is that there are technologies to keep data centers (relatively) quiet when they become disruptive to communities.  

3. How Long Does Data Stay Where You Stored It?

As much as we love old-school media here at Backblaze, we’re keeping this conversation to digital storage—so let’s chat about how long your data storage will retain your media, unplugged, in ideal environmental conditions. 

We like the way Enterprise Storage Forum put it: “Storage experts know that there are two kinds of drive in this world—those that have already failed, and those that will fail sooner or later.” Their article encompasses a pretty solid table of how long (traditional) storage media lasts.

A table that compares types of drive and how long they will last. 

Hard disk drives: 4-7 years 
Solid state drives: 5-10 years
Flash drives: 10 years average use

However, with new technologies—and their consumer applications—emerging, we might see a challenge to the data storage throne. The Institute of Physics reports that data written to a glass memory crystal could remain intact for a million years, a product they’ve dubbed the “Superman crystal.” So, look out for lasers altering the optical properties of quartz at the nanoscale. (That was just too cool not to say.)

4. What’s the Most Expensive Data Center Site?

And why? 

One thing we know from the Network Engineering team at Backblaze is that optimizing your connectivity (getting your data from point A to point B) to the strongest networks is no simple feat. Take this back to the real world: when you’re talking about what the internet truly is, you’re just connecting one computer to every other computer, and there are, in fact, cables involved

The hardware infrastructure combines with population dispersion in murky ways. We’ll go ahead and admit that’s out of scope for this article. But, working backwards from the below image, let’s just say that where there are more data centers, it’s likely there are more network exchanges. 

An infographic depicting data center concentration on a global map.

From an operational standpoint, you’d likely assume it’s a bad choice to have your data center in the middle of the most expensive real estate and power infrastructures in the world, but there are tangible benefits to joining up all those networks at a central hub and to putting them in or near population centers. We call those spaces carrier hotels

Here’s the best definition we found: 

There is no industry standard definition of a carrier hotel versus merely a data center with a meet-me room (MMR). But, generally, the term is reserved for the facilities where metro fiber carriers meet long-haul carriers—and the number of network providers numbers in the dozens.
Data Center Dynamics

Some sources go so far as to say that carrier hotels have to be in cities by definition. Either way, the result is that carrier hotels sit on some of the most expensive real estate in the world. Citing DGTL Infra from April 2023, here are the top 25 U.S. carrier hotels: 

A chart showing the top 25 carrier hotels in the United States and their locations.

Let’s take #12 on this list, the NYC listing. According to PropertyShark, it’s worth $1.15 billion. With a b. That’s before you even get to the tech inside the building. 

If you’re so inclined, flex those internet research skills and look up some of the other property values on the list. Some of them are a bit hard to find, and there are other interesting tidbits along the way. (And tell us what you find in the comments, of course.)

Bonus Question: Is It Over Already?

Look, do I want it to be over? No, never. But, the amount of weird and wonderful data storage questions that I could include in this article is infinite. Here’s a shortlist that other folks from Backblaze suggested: 

  • How broken is too broken when it comes to restoring files from a hard drive? (This is a whole article in and of itself.)
  • When I send an email, how does it get to where it goes? (Check out Backblaze CEO Gleb Budman’s Bookblaze recommendation if you’re curious.) 
  • What happens to storage drives when we’re done with them? What does recycling look like? 

So, the real question is, what do you want to know? Sound off in the comments—we’ll do our best to research and answer.


About Stephanie Doyle

Stephanie is the Associate Editor & Writer at Backblaze. She specializes in taking complex topics and writing relatable, engaging, and user-friendly content. You can most often find her reading in public places, and can connect with her on LinkedIn.