Monday, August 23, 2010


Cloudy: more thoughts on cloud computing

My esteemed colleague (and occasional commenter here) Nathaniel Borenstein recently had an article published in TechNewsWorld, Is the IT Pendulum Winding Down?

Are we finally nearing a time when IT’s constant swing between centralized and distributed systems might be slowing to a stop? In the case of cloud computing, technology is now reaching the point where we can have our cake and eat it too. Cloud computing is new not because the technologies are new, but because this key combination of technologies has matured past a critical point.

I had something to say about cloud computing about a year ago in these pages. There, I imagined the shifts in centralization vs distribution as a circle, rather than as a pendulum, and I thought of cloud computing as having closed the circle, not as being somewhere along the pendulum’s arc, doomed by inertia and gravity to have the pendulum move away again.

And, so, I largely agree with Nathaniel. In circumnavigating things, we moved away from the centralized computing center because of the disadvantages of having all services in one place, and because of the new capabilities provided to us, first by personal computers and then by mobile and other distributed devices. As we closed the circle, we retained those new capabilities and figured out how to provide the central services in a distributed way over the Internet, getting the best features of each in the cloud.

Yet, I don’t think we can nestle our collective bum in that cloud and sit comfortably, claiming that we’re done. There are still disadvantages to what we have, and whether we can fix them without making another circle (or, if one prefers, pendulum swing) is questionable. I don’t think we can.

The problem is that the issues we need to address — at least the first set of issues — are not technological, but organizational. Here are some of the questions that come up, with no attempt to answer them, because, indeed, we have no idea at this point about what the answers will be.

Who owns the data we put in the cloud? What rights do we have to our data? What rights to the cloud providers have? How will that play out in courts of law?

How is the privacy of our data assured? What about privacy associated with the services we use? Every time we do a web search, every time we use a location-based service, every time we look up a person, send email, post a photo... we’re giving some organization in the cloud private information about ourselves. What rights do we have, and what don’t we have?

What about the long-term viability of our data? What about the services we depend upon? When the company that stores our stuff goes out of business, where do our files go? When the company is sold, what happens when the new owners change the rules (suppose we got free storage from the old company, but the new owners want to charge, and demand six months’ payment in advance if we want to see our data again)?

Even without ownership changes, what about when a service provider suddenly changes privacy or access rules, as Facebook has done several times? What happens when the Google/Verizon deal turns out to have a significant effect on access to the stuff we put on Google Docs?

It’s easy to say that, well, if you don’t like the new rules you can move your data and use someone else’s services. That might not be so easy in practice. Are you really going to spend time to move perhaps terabytes of data from one host to another? In the absence of any migration assistance? And what about if the old host’s rules restrict your access? Maybe the very reason you want to move is that you can’t get at all (or any) of your data any more, or your access is rate-limited.

On the other side, it’s very easy, now, to put a multi-terabyte hard drive on the Internet. And even on mobile devices, we can get a 32 gigabyte SD card for about $75, or 16 GB micro-SD for about $30. That’s around $2 per gigabyte, and that’ll fit into a mobile phone, portable media player, or digital camera. How long before that goes up to hundreds of gigabytes, in a card the size of your fingernail? Maybe we’ll soon just carry everything around in our mobile phones, and it’ll all be accessible over the Internet from there... automatically backed up on another memory card in the phone’s charger (which could also be on the Internet).

The cloud is giving us some great capabilities, as well as possibilities we haven’t realized yet. But I don’t think for a minute that we’re done.

No comments: