As we all know, the cloud isn't an amorphous, non-geographical blob of computing. Which is a good thing, because there are plenty of legal implications around where your data lives and where it moves both to and from.
The point is, of course, that as the cloud isn't just a cloud, your choice of provider is largely dependent on the where the various providers have their data centres.
The big names all have locations in the US, of course, and you're spoilt for choice with both the big providers and the smaller, more niche ones. And the US is the US – you can put your data anywhere in its three and a half million or so square miles, and the geographical separation of your data centres across up to three time zones is plenty for anyone. Pick the Virginia and California options for your Azure locations and there's more than two thousand miles between your locations. The distance between AWS's east and west locations isn't dissimilar. Dead easy, then.
Europe's rather different Putting your data in Europe is another matter, though. Although Europe's only 41 per cent the size of the US it's far more complex because it comprises 51 countries (plus a few additional oddments), of which 28 are – at time of writing at least – still members of the European Union. So there are many jurisdictions to choose from, and only about half of them are part of the EU and hence provide liberal regulations on how data can move between them.
And if we look at the big providers, they've all chosen EU member states for their European locations. So Amazon's cloud sits on data centres in the Republic of Ireland and Germany (Frankfurt), Microsoft's Azure cloud lives in the Netherlands and the Republic of Ireland, Google's lives in Belgium, and Rackspace's is in the UK (London).
Does my data need to be in the EU?
If you're looking to adopt a Europe-based cloud service, you clearly have a choice as to whether or not you pick one that's in the EU – and that choice will be based on a few factors.
First of all, if you're EU-based and your only cloud locations are to be Europe-based (i.e. nothing as far afield as, say, the US) then by picking an EU-located cloud provider you can make life nice and easy by keeping the data in the EU and taking advantage of the common data protection laws that span the EU member states.
If you're looking for hosting on multiple continents, though, the compulsion to focus on EU locations is less compelling – if you're hosting data in different parts of the world anyway, you're going to have to seek expertise on non-EU data import/export for the distant locations and so adding one or two more to the collection is less of a big deal.
The benefit in this case is that by defocusing the EU-centric part of the decision you can instead look at factors such as specific fit to your particular industry (if you're finance-centric or into e-gaming then the Channel Islands are interesting, for example) or political independence (for example Switzerland's a neat European location that's not part of the EU but enjoys excellent trade agreements).
This doesn't mean that you should specifically avoid the EU for multi-continent installations, of course. You might decide that the data centres buried deep in the rocks in Gibraltar are where you want to be: its membership of the EU since 1973 is entirely incidental in this case.
Would I choose the UK?
As I write this at the start of June 2016, the answer is: wait until 24 June before you make a choice either way. The country goes to the polls on 23 June, and some time after that we should know whether the UK has chosen to leave the EU or remain a member. Will a Brexit make a difference to your choice? Well, it may do if your cloud world is limited to the continent of Europe, for the reasons I’ve already given.
Should it cause you automatically to decide against putting your data in the UK? Absolutely not, any more than you should automatically decide not to put your data in any of the other non-EU European countries. The UK is a fantastic place to put your cloud data – just give it a few weeks so you know what the terms of engagement will be.
Where's that then?
All of which brings us to an interesting thought: namely that the choice to host in the EU may well be in part down to the data protection laws that unify the member states, but if we look deeper at the alternatives there's an interesting revelation. Ask yourself which European countries aren't part of the EU, and then do a quick mental check as to whether you'd feel keen on having your corporate data stored in, say, Russia, Kosovo, Serbia or Belarus.
Are these locations known for their five-nines data centre provision or excellent security and resilience? OK, you have some locations that one would normally consider reputable, such as Norway and Switzerland, but you'll get a filthy look from your board if you suggest putting their data in some non-EU European countries.
Look at the niches
The other thing you need to consider when you're looking for cloud provision is whether there's a provider that happens to fit your particular niche. If you're looking for offshore centres, for example then there's a variety of providers in the likes of the Caymans, Bermuda, Hong Kong, Panama and (dragging us back into Europe) Gibraltar, Cyprus and the Channel Islands.
If you're looking for a niche location, of course, you do need to consider whether it's sensible to put all your eggs into more than one virtual basket. “Socking big provider” tends to mean “unlikely to go out of business any time soon” and “unified management across multiple geographies.
Some of the smaller niche installations have a greater financial stability risk, so do your homework; it's not daft to select more than one provider, though you'll have to use multiple interfaces to configure the segments of your cloud world. But don't be put off just because a location is a bit niche and not an obvious choice: I was surprised a few weeks ago, for example, to discover how advanced Cyprus is with regard to cyber security and fighting cybercrime.
If you're looking for a cloud service in Europe, there's a lot to be said for checking out the EU countries first – not only for the unified data protection laws but equally because (he says, bracing himself for the Eurosceptic onslaught) EU membership comes with a stamp of relative non-dodginess.
But don't get hung up on the benefits of the EU – there are some very nice locations out there for offshore cloud services, particularly for financial services and e-gaming applications.
Whatever approach you take, though, be sure to take advice over the legalities of where you do select – and if you're going for a niche provider or an unusual-sounding location, don't be put off automatically but, equally, make sure you research the stability aspects first.