Saturday 18 December 2010

Head in the clouds

Delicious is a sobering reminder of why dumping all your data into someone elses hands can be a very bad thing indeed.

Somewhere in my list of posts I've written and never published is one titled exactly like this one, written in February this year. This is a rehash of that, in some ways, but things have moved on a long way, both in where I work and what I do for a living, but also in the digital landscape, so I can't simply hit publish.

'The cloud' for those unfamiliar with the sometimes ridiculous names geeks give to technologies, is a bit hard to define, but essentially, when you save your information, documents, maps or data of any kind to somewhere which is not either in your house, or on your companies network, it's saved to the cloud. For example, gmail is email in the cloud. All the emails you send and receive are stored far away somewhere in America. If gmail broke, you wouldn't be able to access your email. Google documents is cloud computing, so is Flickr, so are Bing or Google maps. And so is Delicious, the place where a large amount of people saved their favourite web pages to, in the form of bookmarks.

Yahoo! bought Delicious. Now, it transpires, it is in on their hit list, or rather their 'sunset' list. Details are emerging that this might mean it's on it's asset sell list, but there's no guarantees anyone will buy it. So, at the flick of a switch in a remote server farm somewhere over in America, someone will cut my connection to my bookmark list.

I have no comeback. No legal grounds to demand the switch is flicked back. I can export my bookmarks to somewhere else, another service, but those services don't seem to be quite the same. I put them with delicious for a reason, it was a good service. But I assume a loss making service, and so it's on the switch off list.

That post I wrote back in Feb? It asked why we were all so quick to trust our data to the cloud, and this was one of the reasons. There were many others. Do a search on Bing and on Google for the same road you live on and zoom out a little and you will see the discrepancies in road curves and levels of detail. Try and write a complicated document in Google docs in Word, with annotations and footnotes and see what happens when you pull it back down off the cloud again. Check the terms of use for Google maps and understand that anything you map with them, anything at all, they claim intellectual property rights to. Fine if you don't care about such things but for those of us who are trying to explain internally in our organisations that Google might be free but it's free for a reason, it's a really big deal.

So what's the solution? I'm not sure there is one. Ultimately, if you use a service, and it's free, and you don't pay for it, you've no rights. If you use a service which nabs IPR off you, you've no rights either. If a hurricane hits the server farm your data is stored on, what can you do? It's all about risk analysis. What's the liklihood of the server farm your cloud data is sitting on getting hit by a terorrist attack, a natural disaster or a company takeover? If your data is that important to you, I would humbly suggest that these are the questions which you should be asking yourself. To be social and to share is a wonderful thing, but perhaps there is a limit to what can and should be put in the cloud? Maybe we should all be keeping regular back ups?

I don't have the answers, but I think it's important someone asks the questions. We all assume that Yahoo and Google will be around forever. Some of us assume that they're 'geek' companies, trying to provide tools for the geeks to use and use well and that if those tools are used, the companies will somehow feel some responsibility to maintain them. This is not the case. They are companies, floated companies, with shareholders and the bottom line will always be, profit to return to those shareholders.

The cloud is not fluffy. The cloud is for making money. Social networking, also, is there to ultimately make money. Companies do not make money from goodwill. People don't sit around and chat all day to be friendly. People do it to make money. One eye always on profit.

Don't be deceived by the fluffy name. It's not fluffy at all, and clouds can disappear in seconds.


  1. As you point out the C words cloud computing relies heavily on the T word - trust a commodity that is understandably in short supply to which companies are thinking of trusting their precious data. This is one of the reasons the hybrid cloud, where companies store their information on servers for which they have direct responsibility is looking very attractive.

    You only have to look at how many cloud based services are piggy backed onto the likes of Amazon and consider what happens when malodorous solids hit rotating blades then you may think that the whole cloud ethos is skating on very thin ice.

    But it is early days. After all we rely on utility companies to supply us with the likes of water, electricity, telecoms, gas etc and we don't start digging wells and whacking up unsightly wind turbines do we?

  2. Nope, understood completely. But the gas company don't hold my life to ransom for the supply of that gas. IPR is a really really big issue for us and should be for other companies too. What happens, say, if I map grit bins on Google maps and Google, at some point in the future, decide to charge everyone for access to those maps? I can't do anything ahout it.

    I'd go map it somewhere else, obviously, but with the grasp on the market Google currently has, there's a possibility some people would be silly enough to pay for that access......

    Free is not free. Or rather, it is, but at a price.

  3. "If you're not paying for the product, you are the product" is a particularly apt quote here. In other words, unless you pay for service x, whatever you put in to it is being used by the company who run service x to make money.

    (also 101 other websites but they all originally seem to link back to this Metafilter post:

  4. Louise,
    Apart from your own personal (bad) experience of cloud computing, do you have any experience of corporate cloud computing, upside as well as down?