Life in the Clouds

Posted July 13th, 2011 at 4:33 pm (UTC-4)
2 comments

The Benefits, and Pitfalls, of Cloud Computing

If you’re wondering what the latest, biggest “New New Thing” on the web may be, just look up at the sky for a clue.

It’s something called ‘cloud computing,’ and while there’s not much agreement what exactly it is, it’s clearly the topic of the moment.

“Forecast: Increasing Cloudiness” predicts the Internet technology blog Channel Insider.  “The cloud…is the long-held dream of computing,” writes Michael Armbrust with the University of California Berkeley.  “Cloud computing is hot and will only get hotter over the next few years,” says Steve Wexler at Network Computing.

It’s not hard to find praise, and predictions, about cloud computing.  Much harder, however, is finding a clear and concise definition.

“As a metaphor for the Internet, ‘the cloud’ is a familiar cliché,” write Eric Knorr and Galen Grumen at InfoWorld.com.  “But when combined with ‘computing,’ the meaning gets bigger and fuzzier.”  Much like those big white things in the sky, ‘cloud computing’ may be an idea that looks fairly solid from a distance but gets less tangible the closer you get.

The basics of cloud computing are fairly simple: all the things your computer or smart phone does can be done faster, cheaper and better by a more powerful computer that exists somewhere else.  If you have lots of documents, why not protect them on massive servers with terabytes of storage?  If you use lots of different programs, why not use them on computers with much more powerful processors rather than your laptop?   With cloud computing, even the cheapest device can work like a supercomputer; all you need is a connection to the Internet.

None of this is really new.  Email services like Hotmail and Gmail are essentially cloud computing – all your writing, editing, and stored messages are kept on servers somewhere else so that you can access them from anywhere.  In this sense, cloud computing has existed from the beginning of the Internet itself.  If you have a Facebook account, you are using a kind of cloud computing, as you access photos, games and files that run only on Facebook.  Everything you see on your screen exists at and executes from a remote site.   Another example of cloud computing is embodied by remote retrieval services such as gotomypc.com – which allow you to go to and run your office computer from home.  You’re still in control, but like a hobbyist flying a radio controlled airplane,  you’re on the ground, while the action is really happening somewhere out there.

“Cloud computing will become more dominant than the desktop in the next decade,” writes Lee Rainie with the Pew Internet & American Life Project.  Perhaps.  But in the rush to embrace the new, some now are asking serious questions about what may be lost in the cloud.

The photos I post on Facebook are actually stored on their servers – so are they my property, or theirs?  If I’m using a variety of applications on my smart phone, who is responsible for security – me, the phone company, or the application developers?  If a court wants to subpoena documents I use through Gmail, will they ask me or the Google Corporation?  And how will I protect my privacy when little digital bits and pieces of me are stored across the Internet?  The answers are troubling.

For example, in 2009, U.S. District Judge Michael Mosman ruled that law enforcement authorities don’t need to provide a warrant to an individual to read his or her emails stored off-site but only to the actual Internet service provider.  More recently, a study conducted by the Michigan-based Ponemon Institute finds that most cloud-computing providers consider security to be the user’s concern, while most users think the company is responsible for keeping their private data private.  Even the New York Times has weighed in with an editorial titled ‘The Cloud Darkens.”  “We are putting our lives in the cloud, as companies and consumers store everything from family photos to corporate business secrets on remote servers,” they write.  “Beefing up online security is of paramount importance.”

In fact, growing concerns about privacy and security are making ‘the cloud’ look a little stormy.

“There are many motivations for why an individual or a company would want to engage in cloud computing,” says Thomas Parenty, managing director of Parenty Consulting in an interview with CNN. “None of them have to do with enhanced security.”

Storm clouds on the horizon (Photo courtesy realworldracingphotog)

Parenty and others point out that as lax as some individuals can be when it comes to cyber-security, corporations are rarely much better, as the recent spate of Internet hacks have made abundantly clear.  Both can be hit by cyber-attacks and phishing scams, but in the cloud you don’t have just one computer to protect, but possibly hundreds scattered around the globe.  Making things worse, he says, is that corporations and ISPs aren’t transparent about their security protocols, leaving users to their own devices.  “You have no idea who is managing the computers with your information. You have no idea where they are. You have no idea what protections may or may not be in place to make sure your information is not stolen or disclosed or that it does not accidentally disappear.”

Just as problematic, cloud computing will also routinely fail – so says a group of security professionals at the recent “GigaOm Structure” computer conference.

“Everything within the infrastructure needs to be designed with failure in mind…That’s how you have to run your business,” says Claus Moldt, Global Chief Information Officer at Salesforce.com, a cloud computing firm in San Francisco.

To be fair, while “failure” can be a scary sounding word, technologists use it in a slightly different manner when talking about the robustness of a computer network compared to, say, an electrical grid. When a computer network fails, usually because some part becomes overloaded and stops working, engineers are often able to patch around the problem, isolating the part that’s failing and keeping the larger network mostly working.  In contrast, when an electric power grid network fails, the results are immediate and hard to fix, meaning few work-arounds and prolonged electric outages.

As foggy as the issues of privacy and security in the cloud are, they’re further complicated by corporate regulations and national laws that have hardly caught up with the web in general, let alone cloud computing specifically.  If a government wants access to the documents of its citizens, what are the ISP’s responsibilities?  What if it’s an international company with servers on several continents?  Does the country where the servers are located need to get involved?  And in the cloud, as documents are constantly copied, moved and stored in multiple locations, can they really be said to exist in any one spot?

Most would agree that cloud computing is still in its earliest days.  And, like many other tech things, a lot of the security and privacy concerns will likely get worked out – in time.   For the moment, whether the cloud is fluffy and helpful or dark and threatening depends on a great many factors; preparing for the risk of a downpour remains mostly up to the user.  Still, it’s a risk increasing numbers are willing to take.

“You have to weigh the tradeoffs,” writes Matthew Weber at the blog TBKD:

“Is it more important for you to have the convenience of having your information in the cloud? Or, is it more important for you to know your information is safe and secure? For me it is a little of both. I worry about having my information in the cloud (never anything too personal). However, I love the convenience of things like Amazon Cloud Player and Google Music. I also expect that while my information may be more likely to be stolen in the cloud, it is much safer from hard drive failures while it is stored there.”

 

2 Responses to “Life in the Clouds”

  1. Stephen Kahn says:

    When I was quite a bit younger, and personal computers were brand new, the way computing was done was with a “dumb terminal” and a mainframe. Then the “IBM PC” came along, and everyone was agog at being unleashed from the monster mainframe. Then we went to client-server computing with “thin clients” as if it was something new. And so on, the cycles continued.

    “Cloud computing” is so old, it is new. Probably there was some variation of these cycles dating back to clay tablets and hieroglyphics.

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