Thursday, October 9, 2008

It's a Big Cloud

I have recently read several articles that comment on the issues surrounding 'cloud computing'. However, they all seem to be the proverbial blind men describing an elephant. Doc Searls covers more ground than most and promises a follow up discussion, but all of them tend to limit the issues to their own perspective.

I don't have a problem with their facts, just the level of incompleteness. First, I'd like a really good definition of 'cloud computing'. Since I have not seen one, I will take a shot at it. As a network guy, I have seen clouds in network diagrams for a long time, so I tend to build on that understanding to relate to the current state of the technology.

The essence of 'cloud computing' is that it extends the personal computer to utilize Internet resources. These days, a personal computer may be a desktop, a kiosk station, a laptop, a mini-laptop, a smart phone, or an applicance. The resources that can be used include services, such as weather or stock information, interactive applications, such as Email or social network sites, storage sites, such as Flickr, or computer-to-computer applications, such as tracking packages or vehicles.

Using this definition, it is obvious that 'cloud computing' is simply a buzzword. Anyone who makes online purchases, has an online Email account, or has joined a social networking site is participating in 'cloud computing'. Even if the requirement that data that would otherwise be stored on a local disk be involved, all three of these examples meet the definition.

So what's the big deal? Well, as usual, social mores are behind the technology, and some of the discussion is about trying to catch up. Also, if the definition can be controlled, it can be sold as a new product, with the inescapable "caveat emptor" warnings from consumer advocates. With that in mind, I see the following issues involved in using this technology. Not surprisingly, many of them are the same as the issues of using computer technology in general, but the addition of the Internet puts a new spin on them:
  • Cost: The proponents of 'cloud computing' tend to tout this as a big plus. That sounds to me like they are trying to sell a web version of out-sourcing. The easiest argument against it would be that traditional out-sourcing has not proven to be a huge cost saver across the board.

    But the real issue is the question of, "Who is the target market?" I cannot imagine a retail company putting it's inventory on storage managed by Google. So realistically, the target market is individual consumers. The type of data being handled is mostly Email, audio/video files, and blogs. For this, the online storage -- and backups -- are very cost effective.

    Will we ever see companies out-sourcing to web services/storage? I never say never, but I think it is a really hard sell. So I predict that it will eventually take hold, but in a limited way. Applications that help companies interact with their customers could be beneficial to both parties. And then there are the ones that no one has thought of yet.

  • Reliability: Adding the Internet to the equation makes
    reliability a huge issue. The components that must all be working are:

    • The personal computer
    • The local ISP
    • The cloud
    • The remote ISP
    • The remote services

    The further out you go, the higher the possibility of failure. But so what? How many times in your life have you missed a critical phone call or Email, where minutes or even hours made a difference? In my mind, the backups at the storage site are far superior to the procedures done by the majority of consumers, myself included. And this outweighs the few times that the site is inaccessible, and is more cost effective at the same time. Even downtime for businesses would not lead to their demise.

  • Access to data: The remaining items are where much of the current discussion is centered. There are some online Email services where it is difficult to retrieve Emails to the personal computer. But this is an issue that can be managed. It essentially boils down to read before you sign, and if you're the type who doesn't do this, well shame on you. Also, it would be pretty silly to not keep a copy of at least the most important data locally, such as photos, which adds to the cost. But the cost of losing it forever is even higher.

  • Privacy: If there is anyone who hasn't figured it out yet, let me put it as plainly as possible. Nothing on the Internet is private. All the privacy policies and laws in the world cannot stop someone who has a real desire to take whatever data they want and do whatever they want with it. Data that is more important, such as financial information can be more carefully protected (this is where I get to plug Realeyes), but computer security is a matter of probabilities, not guarantees. As far as what the Internet companies do with your data, again, read before you sign. But if there is information that should never be exposed, it should never be accessible from the Internet.

  • Ownership: I believe that this is the reason that Richard Stallman said using 'cloud computing' is stupid. He has long championed freedom of information, not just program source code. The ownership policies of most sites promoting 'cloud computing' goes against this in that they consider your information to be free, but not their own. Therefore, his position is consistent and reasonable. However, if you consider losing $1,000 in Las Vegas to be part of the fun, then I guess you can be forgiven for thinking he is a spoil sport.

    It is true that most of the sites that handle consumer data reserve the right to use that data as they please. Their literature basically says this is for promotional purposes. And Google finds keywords in Email to display ads. I have known people who take the dealer logo off their cars because they object to being a billboard. If that is you, you are probably going to be uncomfortable using these sites. But having a social networking account is not a right. You have to pay to play. Just remember the rule about Internet privacy, which is that there is none.

  • Security: This is not a rehash of the storage site's security policies. It is a serving of food for thought. The Internet is a virtual wild west. The quality of security from one site to the next varies widely, and there are many who are happy to take advantage of that. The more you use the Internet, the higher your chances of having a vulnerability exploited. So if you use the same personal computer for social networking that you use for banking, you may become a victim of identity theft. I can think of a couple of analogies here, and I expect that you can too. I would say that the same types of rules apply. At the very least, please keep your security patches up to date.
To 'cloud compute' or not, that is the question. Of course, if you are reading this, you have already answered it. Now it is simply a matter of degree. Are you going to participate fully, or limit your involvement to a few interests? The most important thing is to be aware of the issues. I hope that I have contributed some useful thoughts to that end.

Later . . . Jim


jp said...

Your definition of cloud computing is interesting to say the least. Your perspective is one of the end user and from that perspective your definition makes sense. However, via your definition even accessing a web server is cloud computing? Not sure I understand. Also, you already use cloud computing - how do you think blogger operates?

From a vendor point of view, cloud computing is far different. The vendor wants to be able to put an application or service in play and have that service available, growable on demand, and be charged for only what is used. To vendors, cloud computing abstracts the menial tasks of managing infrastructure and allows them to concentrate on maintaining their service.

The notion of data security is hogwash. Once the data hits the internet it is open to anyone's eyes. But data security is no different in the cloud computing space as it is anywhere else. You have to mitigate as much risk as possible in everything you do.

Richard Stallman has his view, you have yours and many others have theirs. Cloud computing is not only viable, it is growing rapidly and it will change over time. That is simply a fact of life, evolution.

Jim Sansing said...


Yes, this post was written from the perspective of the end user. Therefore, a main goal was to cut thru the hype and nail down meaningful facts to be considered. I'm not against 'cloud computing', I just don't consider it to be something so unique as to deserve to be branded. As I said in the post, this would make it a product, which it is not.

Later . . . Jim

Alain said...

Blind men describing the elephant, Jim? It might surprise these blind men that all of them, elephant and ground itself are inside the 'Cloud'.

No way they will able to figure it out. Even if they withhold their identities, the moment they are born, their data will be transmitted and somehow reside in the so-called cloud.

Resistance is futile...

Alain Yap