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Josh Fruhlinger Headshot

The Cloud: No Sir, I Don't Like It

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On my first day as a freshman at UC San Diego, I was handed a login and password to use for email, file storage, and general Internet access on the university's UNIX systems. Every day I would log in, browse Usenet, troll about on IRC, save files to my personal directory, and access them from elsewhere. I thought it was great, and I loved being able to save an in-progress paper to the account from a lab and then log in later to finish it from my dorm room.

Then one night as I was set to finish a Political Science paper, I couldn't log in. "We're sorry, the servers are down for maintenance. Please try later."

"But... you have my paper!" I whisper-screamed.

I spent that night waiting for the paper-hostage-holding servers to come back online. Thankfully, around 4:00am, they popped back up, and I quickly moved the file to a 3.5-inch floppy where it was safe.

I didn't know it at the time, but I was using the cloud, and I didn't like it. Heck, it ate my paper.

This was 1990, by the way. Yes, the cloud was around then.

These days, Apple has MobileMe, or iCloud, or whatever it is they're calling it next month. Google has GoogleDocs. Microsoft has Office 365. Amazon has Elastic Cloud Compute (EC2) as well as its new remote music library service that everyone seems to be talking about. Heck, even my mortgage company is doing my entire underwriting process online. Somewhere, my last two years of W2s, tax returns, pay stubs, credit history, and first born are spinning away in a server room.

The cloud is not only the hottest growth market in online services, but it's also the darling subject of journalists who like to write about a new era of convenience, of accessing files when on the road, of listening to music collections from afar.

"My music? It's in the cloud!" they exclaim, eyes wide, waiting for others to join in amazement at the simple act of connecting a storage device to the Interwebs.

As for me? I'm not impressed. We've been here before, and I don't want to go back.

Don't get me wrong. I love some things about the cloud. I love Netflix streaming (and I'll love it more when studios relax their Byzantine licensing policies), I think Pandora is a pretty cool way to discover new music, and I've been known to throw the occasional file on DropBox when I need to share it with colleagues. But that's just the Internet, people. That's what we expect. We put files in places and get them later. We download things. This isn't some amazing new development. This cloud business is just a way for companies to ask us to pay them to hold our stuff. They're eating our papers.

We've seen several cloud disasters (Storm clouds? Sorry. Couldn't resist). Without Googling, I can think of a few: Microsoft / Danger's Sidekick outage of 2009 that resulted in thousands of users' lost contact lists, last week's Playstation Network outage that saw 70 million users' private information go into hackers' hands, and most recently Amazon's EC2 service outage. And then there was that time in 2008 when Blizzard's World of Warcraft servers went down and my Druid was rolled back an entire level. I lost some seriously epic gear.

It's a wonder we think remote storage and access is the great new thing. I can understand why it was smart back in the day when storage was expensive, when backing involved hundreds of 1.4MB disks (or -- gasp -- tape drives). But these days, a 2-terrabyte drive goes for $80. Most modern operating systems even include automatic background backup processes.

So why do people love it? They say it's a) convenient, b) productive, and c) perpetual.

Convenience

Having access an entire music collection from a hotel 3,000 miles away can be called convenient. To me, it's unnecessary. I have about 7,000 songs on my iPhone that are always with me. Try listening to your Rdio account on a wi-fi free plane. Try grabbing that important presentation over a 3G connection. Me? I'll keep my stuff locked up nicely on my laptop where I can access it whenever and however I want. I'll keep my songs on my home computer where I can stream to any room. I'll keep the others on my iPhone for my commute.

Productivity
Everyone wants to get things done. Being able to see your workmate's revisions on a Google Doc is a thing of wonder. But you're not seeing anything if you don't have Internet access, and imagine if your service of choice goes down right before your big deadline (Admit it: it's happened to you). Grab that document to your local drive, make revisions, and then upload it later when you have access. Everyone wins.

Perpetual
As people upgrade computers, having a remote cloud account means that all they need to do is plug in the new hardware and log in. My computer is the same no matter where I am - I just log in. Everything is just as it was. Great, right? Well, maybe. Everything looks the same, but is that really a good thing? What if your new computer has a faster processor and killer GPU that could make use of newer applications and workflows? Is logging into your "old" cloud really pulling the most of of your new equipment's cycles? Ever notice, for instance, how your cable provider's set-top-box looks like it does a lot, but it's always hampered by clunky software that it runs on the cloud? Is that really the lowest-common-denominator performance we want out of our equipment?

Cloud computing makes sense for some applications, and I'm not about to say we should give up on it completely. I'm a huge fan of private clouds: home networks that allow media streaming and file sharing across computers along with secured access from afar. I also share files with people while getting things done -- that's the nature of the network. Do I think the cloud is an ultimate replacement for local storage? Heck no. I will never trust my media collection to someone else's hands where it can go offline, be analyzed by nosey marketers, or even completely disappear. It belongs in my hands where I can flip through it in real time.

We've come full circle. No, wait: we're going backwards. We started out with VT100 text-based UNIX logins because it was necessary. We matured to personal computers with local drives. But now we're so into the idea of the cloud that we're thinking we should put everything there. Are we gearing up for the perfect storm?

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