Storm Clouds In The Cloud

  • by , Featured Contributor, September 29, 2009
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I've come back from getting married to find a cloud of red dust blanketing Sydney and a cloud of controversy blanketing that other cloud. You know, the SaaS one.

Facebook has had to pull the plug on its ill-conceived Beacon program in the face of a privacy lawsuit. A judge added insult to injury by ordering someone's email account shut down after a bank mistakenly sent them confidential information. Last Thursday, Gmail went down for the second time in as many weeks. The Google Book Search court case drags on, and The Washington Post is calling search engines "parasitic."



So are the days of cloud computing numbered? Is it time to ditch all our Web-enabled browser-based apps?


In the piece about Gmail's down time, Forrester Analyst Frank Gillett says he hasn't heard about any corresponding outages at Yahoo or Hotmail. Frank, let me share a little story with you. Some years ago, perhaps as many as five, I relied on Hotmail as my primary email provider. One day, I woke up and all my email was gone. More than 2,500 messages -- gone.

I contacted Hotmail tech support. They were blimmin' useless. I explained to them that all my emails had vanished. They told me that I had four emails in my account. I said I knew that and where were the other 2,496? They said the email is working fine, as you can see by the four emails in your account. I said yes, the email is working fine now, but clearly it wasn't working fine at some point in the night while I was sleeping the dreamless sleep of the innocent. They failed to understand.

I learned a hard lesson that day: namely, that I save a lot of garbage I never need again. But I also learned that the cloud is as subject to catastrophe as any local machine. They can make things as redundant and scalar as you like, but the cloud is still subject to the laws of the universe, and anything can break.

The issue with the cloud is that it is built with only two ingredients: technology and trust. If either one of those things doesn't exist, the cloud doesn't work. And when things go wrong -- especially behavioral things like unfair treatment resulting in lawsuits -- it makes us question the trust we place in it.

Question, yes; abandon, no. Our usage of Facebook and Google and Web-based email of any denomination has become too integrated into our lifestyles for us to abandon it just because one judge shuts down one email account. We're not going to ditch Gmail because of a couple of short outages -- instead, we'll just complain on Twitter for a while. A Gmail outage becomes a "social object" we can form conversations around. On the trust scale, these issues are not enough to break the habit.

But they do highlight something important. The lawsuits, the backlash, the frustration, all tell us that we are dealing with a finite system. Until now, it has seemed that we will welcome any intrusion into our privacy, no matter how egregious; the Beacon lawsuit has shown us that even our ultra-exhibitionist society has limits.

These news stories don't signal the beginning of the end for cloud services. But they do remind us that nothing on the Internet is a panacea and nothing on the Internet is perfect.

After all, it can get stormy, up there in the cloud.

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