Many companies exist solely in The Cloud, such as Amazon, and many more use the web platform to provide goods, provide crm and cloud computing solutions or even services such as Google Docs to millions of users world-wide. In the past weeks, many people will already have read many stories centring on the Megaupload take-down and the continuing war for the Internet. Most of these stories have no doubt been focused on why the take-down was justified or why it was unfair to users who were using the service for legitimate purposes. Many users lost much when Megaupload was shut down, but more important is the drastic effect this will have on the future of Cloud computing.
So What Is The Cloud?
The Cloud is a term being used more and more in computing circles. While there are many definitions, a simplistic view of The Cloud as a place in cyberspace where some computing service takes place is good enough. Many companies exist solely in The Cloud, such as Amazon, and many more use the web platform to provide goods, or even services – such as Google Docs – to millions of users world-wide. So The Cloud is important and is being used more and more as it becomes more reliable.
Reliability and Ubiquity
Regardless of your opinion of the site itself, many of its users were legitimate. Some artists used Megaupload exclusively to distribute their music; it was a very useful platform for making files available via the Internet. The Internet is so ubiquitous these days that it is not unreasonable to place your files in a digital locker such as Megaupload and expect that wherever you go, you can still get at your data. This is taken even further with services like Google Docs, where not only are the files available on-line but they are authored there as well.
Google protects against losing their customers’ data by replicating it to several geographically remote locations. Many companies use the Amazon web services; reliability is a key concern here as well. If companies are to trust their business to run on Amazon’s servers, will their data be safe? With replication and virtualisation, the answer is probably yes. If businesses are to trust The Cloud, they need to know that their data will be safe there. This is the digital age where almost everything is done on-line, whether it is ordering more stock or reporting sales figures, and in these modern times many companies will suffer heavily if they lose access to the Internet. However, because many processes have offline fall-backs, this is not a complete disaster – in most cases, business can still carry on uninterrupted, although far more inefficiently. It would be a far different issue if the data needed for everyday business was kept on-line as well; what good is knowing that the data is safe if you can’t access it?
Disasters, Thin-clients and Internet Dependence
So with Google, Amazon and other similar companies offering to keep your data for you with such a high level of security, it has actually become more likely for local hardware failure to be the cause of data loss. If one of Google’s hard drives dies, the data is simply re-replicated elsewhere. However, for companies who have kept away from The Cloud, a flood, fire, break-in or even just some old hardware reaching the end of its life is likely to result in many problems and probably some data loss. Even a system like RAID, which is supposed to keep your data replicated, is not infallible, especially in the case of a natural disaster. As companies experience these losses, the experience may lead them to consider putting their data on-line. Due to the complexity inherent in keeping an on-line system synchronised with an offline one, many of the companies going down this route are choosing to put all their eggs in the Cloud basket.
Not so long ago, a new computer would have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. That age has long since gone; in the modern world, information is far more valuable than hardware. For large companies, if a computer fails it is not worth the time and money to fix and it is often cheaper just to buy a new machine to allow work to resume as soon as possible. To this end, many schools and businesses are choosing to use thin-clients, which have little processing power of their own, and use remote servers to do all the work. It has been proposed that in the future no individuals and few businesses will own physical hard drives; most people will just have a simple terminal to access a web platform with all the functionality in a modern computer is all that is needed and with the recent advancements in system-on-chip devices this seems all the more likely. Why bother with the expense and risk of hosting everything yourself, if Google, and those like them, can do it so much better than you ever could, for free? Even schoolchildren forgetting to bring in their homework could be a thing of the past with systems like Google Docs – that is, providing the Internet is reliable enough.
What the Megaupload take-down means for The Cloud
More companies are choosing to use The Cloud every day and leaving the hardware worries, backups and upgrades to Cloud services. For the last few years the world has been looking towards Cloud computing as the future, but the take-down of Megaupload with no prior warning has taken The Cloud back from the precipice of success and threatens this kind of advanced usage.
The Megaupload take-down proved that, with no prior warning, a Cloud service can be taken offline due to its misuse by other users. What does this say for other services? Will Google be the next victim because it indexes sites which may contain illegal content and because it owns Youtube, which contains infringing videos? What will Amazon’s users do if they are taken down with no warning because some users were running bootleg movies, drugs or even child pornography through the same service? Is it fair to remove the entire service, punishing the legitimate users as if they were criminals? In the case of Megaupload, not only was the service taken offline but the go-ahead was given to erase all the data without allowing legitimate users to claim back their data. For a business, losing all their sales information with no warning would cause havoc if they ever got audited. Indeed, this precedent could be used to close down a bank because some of its clients were criminals. Should we all be left without a service because some choose to abuse it?
The take-down of Megaupload is a dangerous warning of the power that law enforcement agencies have, and it proves that the greatest asset of The Cloud – its reliability – is no longer unquestionable. The trust that people had in The Cloud has been damaged severely, and it will take many years of hard work to win back. If the FBI or other similar institutions can take down a service because a sub-set of the user base is abusing it, then the chances of something as ubiquitous as Google being here tomorrow become no more certain than the flip of a coin.