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March 2009

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Cloud Computing Has Dark Lining

by Glen Emerson Morris
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Cloud computing has become a politically correct technology to believe in. Its advocates claim cloud computing is the future of computing, which realistically translates into a claim that cloud computing at least may have a future. There are several attractive aspects of cloud computing, and they are valid, but whether they outweigh the negative aspects is another issue.

Cloud computing is ultimately just another variation of the mainframe IT priesthood the Mac was developed to replace. While it has become popular over the last few years, cloud computing really introduces no new technology not available for the last 10 years. Cloud computing's primary innovation is its name. It would be a mistake to accept cloud computing as anything more than just a stage in the progress towards the Era of Desktop Marketing, and towards the more distant Era of Desktop Everything. Still, cloud computing has potential if approached with realistic expectations.

So what exactly is cloud computing? A loose definition would be software as a service offered via the Internet. This would include everything from consumer services like Yahoo e-mail and Google searches, to corporate grade HR and e-commerce. Strictly speaking, in a business context, cloud computing is synonymous with “software as a commercial service.” Cloud computing just sounds better, and makes a better headline. (This column will use the two phrases interchangeably.)

The main advantages of cloud computing are significant economies of scale and efficiency, particularly in the areas of operations, support and security. An SMB would have problems affording the critical mass of senior level engineers needed to deliver in any of these three areas. An SMB would also have problems affording the most advanced Internet security software packages, which are so expensive they only become cost effective when spread over much larger systems than an SMB would need.

The downside to cloud computing takes several forms. The usual main issue with cloud computing is data control, which can be a complex issue for any Website, especially those subject to the privacy laws of multiple nations. Swiss law, for instance, requires that some types of data collected in Switzerland remain in Switzerland.

There are other issues which get far less attention, though they are equally critical. Relying on cloud computing for core business services makes a business vulnerable to interruptions in service, overly dependent on a single provider, subject to new kinds of attacks through the Internet and vulnerable to a variety of problems if their vendor goes bankrupt or ceases operation without notice, and this is a very critical issue.

A key question which should always be asked is how much time, money and resources it would take to move to another software service if that should become necessary or desirable. It's a difficult question to answer because there are no industry standards for the critical areas of data format or security capability. Moving to another proprietary system might require extensive data conversion, and take significant time. Never trust a cloud computing business to tell you what it would cost to migrate to another cloud computing service provider. Only trust the numbers your company personally verifies, and plan for the worst, just in case.

We live in a time where the bankruptcy of major brand names has become common. Minor brands go under with little notice these days. Every business should have a plan in place to deal with business critical vendors who go under. The bankruptcy of a cloud computing service provider could be a worst case scenario because it could have immediate and extremely costly effects on a client business.

The first indication a business might have that anything was wrong might be that their Website went offline, along with everything else. Then both short term and long term problems would exist. If a software service company simply ceases operations one day, like airline giants Eastern and Pan American did, who then is responsible for the servers and the data they contain? Probably no one. If the servers were to go offline before a client could download the most recent data for transfer to a new software service provider, significant data could be lost.

Another issue would be the security of customer data stored on a defunct company's servers, and this really gets problematic if the defunct company is located in another country. There will likely be times when servers are auctioned off, with data intact, to cover losses of the deceased company. It is inevitable that some servers auctioned off will contain critical financial data, including social security numbers and credit card numbers, for thousands, perhaps millions, of consumers. It will only take a few highly publicized cases of this happening before consumer confidence crashes in cloud computing.

These are not insurmountable risks, but they should not be ignored. No business should use any cloud computing service without having a plan in place to migrate to another service if it becomes necessary. In addition, a plan to deal with security compromises should be in place, as is required by federal and state laws. That said, cloud computing could be a reasonable option for outsourcing IT needs.

As with many previous digital technologies and capabilities, once affordable only to the biggest industry giants migrate down the food chain, they will become cheaper and easier to implement. Cloud computing represents a halfway point in that migration. Everything available exclusively to cloud computing systems or larger will be available for in-house use by the average SMB in a few years.

Just as desktop publishing put the entire design and typesetting process on a desktop computer, every other business process, from inventory to HR, will be tamed and brought to the human scale of a desktop computer.

The successful SMB in the future will be increasingly dependent on software designed to make developing, launching, monetizing and supporting B2B and B2C Websites as easy, reliable, efficient and profitable as possible. Cloud computing can help that process, but it is only a means to end. Businesses must keep up the pressure to make all the digital technology they need available to own and control on their own desktop computers. We shouldn't have to settle for less. And we really can't afford to.

Glen Emerson Morris was recently a senior QA Consultant for SAP working on a new product to help automate compliance with the Sarbanes-Oxley law, an attempt to make large corporations at least somewhat accountable to stockholders and the law. He has worked as a technology consultant for Yahoo!, Ariba, WebMD, Inktomi, Adobe, Apple and Radius.

Copyright 1994 - 2008 by Glen Emerson Morris All Rights Reserved

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