At a recent conference I was at, I got in a rather lengthy conversation about Cloud Computing, and its effects on both society and computing. My thoughts were in the minority, but I guess I come from a unique position.
Cloud Computing, for those who are not familiar with it, is the concept that you can load your applications and data into some server "out there" or "in the sky". Your application may reside on a single server, or multiple servers — but you really don’t care. Your data may be under your control, or it may be essentially rented to you for some price (this may not be in dollars, but in ad revenue).
What are my thoughts on it? Cloud Computing is a great concept, but it is essentially taking us back to the old Client/Server days, except we no longer have control of our own destiny. Sure, this may be great for personal, or projects that are no critical, but would you rely your business model on this?
One of the first examples people, or businesses bring up is Google’s gMail service. Google offers a crazy amount of email space which is always available to you as long as you are connected to the internet. They ask for nothing in return, other than to retain your data (email), and serve you advertisements based on the email you get. If you get lots of email on chemistry advancements, then you will get lots of advertisements for test tubes and petery dishes. For most people, they would ask where they could sign up! The two problems I see with this is:
- What happens to your sensitive data? Google doesn’t care what your line of business is, but what about others that have access to Google’s data? What would happen if an advertiser (competitor?) is able to drill into your data — data they may be entitled to because they paid for that advertisement. Even if you are protected from such cases of accidental espionage, the fact that Google (or your service of choice) is building such a close taxonomy of your data, they know exactly what your business is up to — before your employees and shareholders for instance. Remember, they essentially own this data, and you lease it from them.
- What happens if the network is disrupted between you and them? Sure this could happen if your resources are local, but in that instance you are in much further control of the availability of the data. Could you last a day without access to your calendar, email, voice or other hosted applications? How about two or three days? If your internet connection goes down and you host these services locally, then chances are, while you will be in a rough spot, you can still operate your business.
I keep seeing the trend of people moving to these services without much thought of the value of their data. Have you ever read through the license agreement of your favorite cloud service? Did your lawyer? Do you even know where to find it? I am a person who is very tied to many, many laws and regulations in my industry. Not only do I have to worry about education specific laws such as FERPA, but I have to abide by many of the laws and regulations that the FCC and Homeland Security throw my way. Oh, and did I mention that I’m paranoid about my constitutes intellectual property? Michigan State University currently has a set of rules that prohibits the use of many popular cloud services for email or offline storage — a view that seems to be unpopular by the industry for some odd reason.
Another service, which I do tend to like a bit more (and do use for personal use) is Amazon’s cloud services. In their setup, you essentially launch and maintain a computer out in the cloud. You pay a per-minute charge for the amount of usage that you use, but you maintain full control and access to your own data. You maintain the root password, you maintain the encryption, and you maintain the storage. Now, you can still run into the issue of network connectivity, and its facacilities, but this style of service makes both me and my lawyers breathe a bit easier at night — we own our data :)