Cloud Computing – The debate

I listen to a lot of tech podcasts and lately there seems to be a recurring theme. Someone suggests cloud computing is bad, dangerous or just plain useless, while someone else tries to defend it. It’s like trying to defend vaccines to someone who is fixed in their belief that vaccines are bad. People who think there is too much risk in taking a certain action will never agree with those that think there is too much risk in not taking the action. I want to take a different approach here and look at cloud computing as a tool. Like other tools, it’s use comes with some risk. When you use any tool you are responsible doing so safely, protecting yourself and others from physical harm. When using cloud computing similar issues exist. With cloud computing however it’s your data that needs protecting. Lets start from the top.

According to Wikipedia, Cloud Computing is defined as:

“…the provision of dynamically scalable and often virtualised resources as a service over the Internet on a utility basis.”

There is a lot more if you want to read it, but basically the ‘Cloud’ refers to the Internet and the ‘Computing’ refers to the services companies provide there. Many of these services are free. Most of Google’s services or Twitter are examples. Some are pay services, such as hosted email solutions or the remote access products provided by Citrix. In a broad sense, Cloud Computing encompasses the computing services we use over the net as an alternative to using applications installed on our local computer hardware. If you want a bit more detail, Infoworld has an article describing the various types of services provided under the cloud computing banner. However, lets discuss whether cloud computing is a good or bad thing. We will start with some of the disadvantages to cloud computing and then we’ll touch on some of the advantages.

Disadvantages

Internet Access

The biggest issue I find, or hear, about cloud Computing is really an issue with the net itself. Services based on an internet connection require an internet connection. If only that statement were as crazy as it sounds. If your connection fails, be it the fault of the ISP, the local router/firewall, the computer’s NIC (Network Interface Card), the operating system, the… well, your computing goes down with it. Base your entire business word processing system on Google Docs and when your internet connection fails so does the productivity. It could seriously affect your ability to do business. It’s the same with GMail, online banking, flickr, Twitter and Apple’s Me.com. The original iPhone users know what it was like when all applications were internet based. For those new to the iPhone universe, the iPhone’s App Store did not always exist. For about the first year, all ‘Applications’ were websites. No native apps. No internet meant no 3rd party apps at all. On an airplane flight you could not play the games for example. It sucked.

Service Outage

This is a similar issue to general internet access. If your internet works fine, but Google Voice, GMail, Google Docs, your bank or GotToMyPC are down when you need them, it is the same as having no internet. It does not matter if it is due to maintenance or a failure, it will happen. I have heard of people making plans to migrate their companies to Google Docs instead of Microsoft Office. OK, good luck when Google goes down. It has happened. Yesterday flickr went down. A blog I help with links to their photos on flickr and the outage caused those links to fail. Today, my Google Voice number was acting funky. All calls went straight to voicemail and no phones rang. If someone was calling with an emergency that could have been a problem.

Service Mistakes

The Sidekick debacle of 2009. That’s all I have to say. The poster child against cloud computing. Yes, Microsoft/Danger says that most, if not all, data is being recovered. If I am in the minor percentage that loses data then it is still an issue to me. With cloud computing, you’re partially reliant on the service provider handling your data. If they have a disaster, you must trust that they can get any lost data recovered. In a perfect world you would have a way to, at least, have your own backup. In the Sidekick case, the data was server based only. That is a disaster looking for a victim.

Speed

This one is as subjective as local computer speed. Some people get frustrated with a two year old PC not keeping up with them, while my mother-in-law uses a 5 year old machine that is truly Sloowwwwwww. Still, internet access varies greatly. Upload speeds run from slow dial-up to very fast DSL or Cable connections. Most people use asynchronous connections, where the upload speed is different (usually much slower) than the download speed. Others use synchronous connections where the overall speed may be slower, but the up and down streams are the same speed. In either case you are at the mercy of the connection. An online backup service, like Backblaze or Carbonite, may be useless to someone on a slow connection but a lifesaver on a fast connection.

Security

Websites are like anything else in computing. They are made and managed by humans. Smart humans we hope, but humans none-the-less. We have all heard the stories of lost or stolen laptops with credit card data or social security numbers. Security holes exist and are found by bad guys. In some cases the security holes are used to infect the website itself. All you have to do is visit the site and then watch the spyware, virus’ and other malware install onto your machine in front of your eyes. I can hear the Mac users now saying “Oh Ohh Ohhh, pick me!” because of what is seen as a lack of virus’ and spyware on the Mac platform. As a Mac user myself, I have to say that I feel safer on my Mac than on a windows install. I agree that, in general, the malware issue is windows centric, at least for now. That is really not my point here though, and I realy want to avoid the Mac vs PC scene. All systems have vulnerabilities. The point is that in a cloud system you are required to trust a 3rd party with the security of your data.

Centralized Control

In IT we love centralized control. We control desktops, users and machines with Active Directory and Group Policies. We control data access rights and event logging. We push updates to operating systems and anti-virus. Any time a service is outsourced to a third-party supplier it means less control. This brings security and data management issues into the mix.

I think I have mentioned the main roadblocks to using the cloud for your computing. If I missed any, feel free to add them in the comment section. Lets look at the upside of cloud computing.

Advantages

Features

Online cloud services often implement very powerful features not seen in most internal systems. The services we have out there now are amazing. Payroll services, CMS, sales tools and more are available to anyone with the money and connection. Upgrading or improving these services can often be implemented with fewer IT issues too.

Cost

When you only pay for the amount of service you need, you don’t have the larger expenditures on software and hardware. There are many costs related to implementing your own internal services. Hardware, software, licensing, installation, administration, maintenance and utilities all add up. Some scenarios justify those types of expenditures. Others are a better fit with an online pay-per-use type service. With an online service, when upgrades are performed, they often do not change the cost being paid by the client. This makes a more predictable bottom line. And the fees paid for online services are very reasonable. It is like group insurance. Install and maintain a Microsoft Exchange environment in a company of 10 users and the related costs are absorbed by a small group. In a cloud environment the related costs are split among a larger group of users sharing the same resources.

Security

This one falls under the disadvantages & the advantages categories. Most people don’t do backups. Many small businesses don’t either. They know they should but still don’t. In that case, if their systems die they lose all their data. Contacts, email, documents, all gone. In a cloud environment if the end user has a system failure their data is OK in the cloud. We can assume these large cloud based companies have good backup, disaster recovery & business continuity plans in place, right? Companies like Microsoft/Danger hopefully learned their lesson with the Sidekick failures. These online service companies are more likely to have some plan than the average user does. Basic security is generally higher at an online service provider than the average small business can implement. I have seen so many small networks where the server is in the common area open to all employees. They simply don’t have a server room. No security on the hardware, and even less on the software. One time an employee was cleaning a cabinet out and they threw away all the old CD’s in there. Yep, all those old Windows XP and Office 2003 Small Business CD’s. Oh yeah, and licenses too!

Mobility

Web services are, by design, portable. Some services require software to be installed locally, but many do not. As long as you have a computer, with a compatible browser and internet access, you can work. On a cruise and need to check your email? No problem, webmail is common in cloud services, and many corporate exchange environments too. Need to check the Bank Account? Online Banking is available from most major banks if you have the guts. (I’ll post my opinion of online banking sometime). No computer access? Smart-phones are capable of using almost any online service. My point is, you can get to your data from anywhere, at anytime, even if your machine dies. All you need is access to another machine.

Scalable

There are occasions where local machines or servers are simply outgrown. In the cloud, systems can scale much easier and usually have more redundancy than most small local server rooms. There are a lot of Microsoft Small Business Server systems out there where a company is reliant on Sharepoint and Exchange. Most of those are single server deployments. No server farms and no clusters, just one server and one point of failure. The cloud based services are usually much more robust.

My Opinion

If we assume the plan is to replace desktop systems with their online equivalents, then many of the arguments against cloud computing make sense. Sometimes, a project requires local control over the implementation, security and data. When a company, or end user, does choose a cloud service they need to be aware of all the possible issues. Is the data safe and secure? Is there a fall back plan in case the service becomes inaccessible? Will there be offline access to the data? There is risk, and the user must consider it. You must know the companies you are dealing with and then decide if their service provides enough benefit to make dealing with any possible risk worth it.

In my opinion, cloud services not only offer a great number of benefits, but they often offer services that may not have a local equivalent. Google Voice is one of the best examples of that. The tools it provides to me are worth any of the hassles it has caused. There are issues, and I have considered them. My Google Voice failover plan is to use my actual landline phones. If Google Voice was gone tomorrow I could notify everyone easily and quickly. I would however lose stored voicemail, but if I am really concerned about that. I have the option to download audio file copies. No big deal. Flickr is another example. I would not store the only copy of my images on flickr and then cry when flickr went down. As long as I can control at least one copy of my data, I am ok. Personally I love the cloud services available, and I use them a great deal. I will also take the required action to protect myself when possible.

People that dismiss cloud computing as a whole remind me of when a school blindly follows a no tolerance policy. On a case-by-case basis use your brain. Use the tool that solves your problem and be responsible enough to plan for a disaster.

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