Opinion: Falling through the cloud

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This article appeared in the November, 2009 issue of CRN magazine.

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Opinion: Falling through the cloud

You ever have that experience, when you're in a jet above the clouds in broad daylight, looking down upon the cumulonimbus as far as the eye can see and thinking it looks like a giant fluffy cushion and if you were to somehow leap from the plane you would land softly and comfortably on your airborne mattress?

No? OK, maybe it's just me.

The thing is, even though the clouds look pretty thick and substantial viewed from above like that, they are in fact basically steam. If you did in fact jump from the plane you would briefly realise this, as you passed through them on your way to a squishy demise.

Yet for more than a decade we've been sold the idea that our data ought to live in a "cloud". From Sun's "The Network Is The Computer"TM through to RIM offerings from Google, Apple and Microsoft, the notion that your personal and corporate information ought to live out on a fluffy accumulation of steam somewhere has been pervasive. It's jarring in a way, because banks tend to emphasise the solidity and groundedness of the means by which they are protecting your money, yet computer service providers somehow see fit to promise quite the opposite for your data. Surely that's more valuable than your cash on hand, isn't it?

The reasoning, of course, is that your data isn't on a "cloud" as such, it's actually stored in extremely secure servers locked behind military-grade security with multiple redundant backups in countless top-secret sites. Putting your data in "the cloud" in fact means making it extraordinarily secure, because companies like Google and Apple and Microsoft are surely going to have a better backup strategy than you, right?


Well, there's the funny thing. It turns out that the "plummet-right-on-through" interpretation of cloud computing is actually more accurate in some cases.

For example, Microsoft's Sidekick customers (essentially Microsoft's equivalent to RIM's BlackBerry) who discovered recently that their data may as well have been held in bundles of condensed water vapour, and a strong wind could make it go away well quick.

The full story of exactly what happened, and how, and why, has not yet emerged, and in fact may well never come to light. What is known is that there was an outage, data was lost from some servers, and there were no readily-available backups. Microsoft was put in the position of asking people to sync their data from their devices back to the servers, so they'd at least have something.

Imagine if you got a letter from your bank saying "we lost all your cash somehow, and we're wondering if you might deposit some more so we have a bit on hand". Basically the same thing.

The good side of the whole saga is that it might make some people think a bit about how much they trust the companies big and small to whom they entrust vital data. It might spur those companies to think a bit more about stressing the strength and security of their solutions rather than the fluffiness of them.

For years now we've been putting our data in clouds, and Microsoft's Sidekick customers were the first ones to fall through. But none of us can say we weren't warned.

Matthew JC. Powell likes to have an extra copy of everything. Matthew JC. Powell likes to have an extra copy of everything. Contact him on mjcp@me.com. Contact him on mjcp@me.com.

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