Cloud Computing

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“…it’s cloud illusions I recall…” 1

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he “Cloud” has become a staple of everyday computing. We can store our documents in the cloud, create content in the cloud and use a variety of cloud applications. We can move from work to home to the beach and there’s our stuff, conveniently located in the cloud. There are a variety of different types of cloud providers each promising improvement and convenience in our lives in some way. But what are these cloud services really, and is there a downside?

What is the cloud?

The very phrase “the cloud” conjures up something fluffy, ephemeral, mutable and in flux. Some definitions gathered from the the internet give us:

In cloud computing, the word cloud (also phrased as “the cloud”) is used as a metaphor for “the Internet,” so the phrase cloud computing means “a type of Internet-based computing,” where different services — such as servers, storage and applications — are delivered to an organization’s computers and devices through the Internet. 2

Or perhaps a bit more to the point:

“Cloud” is a buzzword that vaguely suggests the promise and convenience of being able to access files from anywhere. But the reality is that the cloud is hardly floating like mist above our heads — it’s a physical infrastructure, it’s many computers housed in massive warehouses all over the world. And yet as long as it’s easy to read email on our phones and watch movies on our laptops, we generally don’t take the time to wonder where our data actually goes, how it gets there, and what happens to it on its way. 3

I like to paraphrase it this way:

The cloud is somebody else’s computer.

The upside

The cloud provides us with many wonderful capabilities from basic file storage to full blown applications that provide us with useful functionality. As identified in the first definition above “the cloud” is just a euphemism for “the internet”. So basically anything you do over the internet is in “the cloud”. There is a staggering array of modern computing conveniences that fall into this category: social spaces such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram; file storage facilities such as onedrive, dropbox, google docs; and full blown application environments such as google apps, evernote, and office live.

There are advantages afforded by cloud computing:

  • the functionality and computing power that runs these things is taken care of by someone else;
  • your stuff is often easy to distribute to other people and may also include the ability to collaborate;
  • you can move across the different devices in your life and get at all of your stuff;
  • you don’t need to do as much installing of software, filing your computer files and that sort of thing.

The downside

To fully understand the downsides of the cloud, let’s refer back to my version of the definition “the cloud is somebody else’s computer.” Further, let’s draw an analogy. Let’s say you are spending a week at my place and decide that keeping your supply of wine in my wine fridge affords you many conveniences, it is close at hand and because my wine fridge is cold your wine will also be cold when you want to use it. There are also some risks involved though, I might not recognize it as your wine, after all I also have wine in the fridge. I might believe as a matter of operating principle that any wine in my wine fridge is mine to use as I see fit, in essence I see the ownership of the wine transferring to me once you close the fridge door.

Enough of the silly analogy, it begins to break down pretty quickly. In general though, when you put something in the cloud you are surrendering a great deal of control of whatever you have put there. This can extend to a number of issues: ownership, usage, privacy, etc. Most cloud providers have a set of terms/privacy policy that outline how your stuff will be used. These terms may also change from time to time so it is important to keep up on them. Remember that these policies don’t protect you and your stuff from hackers who break into those cloud providers.

Another issue that is continually played out in the courts concerns legal jurisdictions and what laws will preside in event of an issue. For most Canadians, especially those involved in education, government or other areas where federal and provincial privacy legislation applies, cloud computing is particularly problematic. As an example, the US Homeland Security act means that stuff stored on computers in the United States cannot satisfy Canadian privacy legislation. Further, lots of cloud providers have multiple servers in multiple geographic locations.

The danger

There are also many risks to putting your stuff on “somebody” else’s computer. For instance, they might decide to use it for some purpose that you are not necessarily comfortable with. There is a saying that if you aren’t paying for a product, then you are the product.

Services such as Facebook are fond of conducting research using the data on their servers. In the academic world we are familiar with research ethics application and approval processes. Such things are mostly absent in the cloud. What about informed consent? Sadly, we have consented. Surely you remember reading the account agreement when you signed up.

It’s my personal belief that we have yet to see what I call Zuckerberg’s punchline. I’m not sure what form it will take, but after decades of us happily posting the details of our carefully curated lives, our interests, our photos, our families, our ideologies and beliefs; and after those same decades of research into human nature, consumer preferences, potential danger to the realm, the whole package gets bundle up and sold to the highest bidder.

What to do, what to do

I have a small set of guidelines I use with respect to cloud computing:

  1. if you want to retain control over ownership and usage be very careful about putting it in the cloud. If you do make sure you understand the termsof the provider.
  2. If privacy legislation is an issue follow the advice of your company or organization with respect to approved cloud services.
  3. If personal privacy is an issue then don’t put it on the internet. Anywhere. If you take photographs with your mobile make sure that it does not automatically upload them somewhere for your convenience.
  4. The question to ask is will this document, tweet, photograph, etc. cause me some concern if it were shared with everyone on the planet. If it will, don’t put it in the internet.
  5. If I wouldn’t toss it on a table at Starbucks then walk away from it, I won’t store it in the cloud.

 An exit strategy

Probably the most important thing to have is an exist strategy. There are many well known and lesser known closures of cloud services that have left users scrambling to retrieve their stuff or make other arrangements to replace the lost functionality. The closure of Google’s Reader rss service pretty much relegated the world of rss to a niche sub-culture and almost killed it.

I became almost suicidal when an email/project management/productivity service called IQTELL announced it would close about a year ago. (Luckily their community rallied and the company worked hard to maintain their service.) I had used this on a daily basis and continue to, it is simply the best thing I’ve discovered for organizing my life.

Always in the back of your mind should be the question, what if this service closes. Will I lose anything, how can I retrieve my stuff?

Okay, time to wrap this rambling screed.

“I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now
From up and down, and still somehow
It’s cloud illusions I recall
I really don’t know clouds at all”
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