Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Technology Forecast: Cloudy

Clouds are billowing, fuzzy collections of moisture aloft in the atmosphere above earth that roll, tumble, shift and mysteriously change shape and disappear almost from one moment to the next.  They are evanescent, sometimes with a sunny halo surrounding them, almost ethereal, generally harmless and often enormously useful.  They can be breathtakingly beautiful, the subject matter of poetry.  In a poem Stephen Casey wrote of clouds, “Whipped creams,
Or God’s dreams?” Percy Shelley wrote, “From my wings are shaken the dews that waken/The sweet buds every one,…” 

Computer folks who are most at home with zeros and ones, aren’t known for their literary allusions, but this is one case in which they (or probably their marketing people) adopted a metaphor to enormous misleading effect on the public, and more interestingly, business users. You have surely seen the billowy ads on the internet, on television and in magazines referring to “cloud computing.”  You probably thought of something akin to Shelley’s “wings” that are shaken, yielding “dews that awaken.”  Actually, cloud computing is far less romantic.

Cloud Computing is a fanciful abstraction for distributed internet services. Computer networking advertisers would like you to think of “cloud computing” as akin to the supply of electricity and gas, or the provision of telephone, television and postal services. All of these services were originally presented to the users in a simple way that is easy to understand “without the users needing to know how the services are provided.” You can highlight the foregoing phrase with your yellow marker, because the computer marketers are counting on your not understanding how they work. They are counting on the American proclivity for not wanting to be bothered with the details. You should be bothered with the details.

Originally the idea of cloud computing was that there would be hundreds or even thousands of smaller computers distributed throughout the country or even the world, forming a virtual network each anonymously storing some data for other users, each of which could be called upon periodically to perform a computational task, while in the background doing other things.  The notion was to use other people’s computers during their down-time. That was a fantasy that never happened. 

The two most significant components of cloud computing architecture are known as the front end and the back end. The front end is the part seen by the computer user, you. This includes your computer and the applications used to access the cloud via a web browser, like Safari or Internet Explorer. The back end of the cloud computing architecture is the ‘cloud’ itself, comprising various computers, servers and data storage devices. Companies don’t tell you much about the actual “cloud” itself.  They would like you to join in the fantasy about fluffy, ethereal, emotionally uplifting whipped cream. Right?

Here is a photo of the actual locale of Google’s cloud computing facility in Dalles, Oregon consisting of several giant computing centers, each the size of a football field and each requiring massive amounts of cooling for the computers inside. Google found out that a furor erupted over the estimated carbon footprint of a Google search, and scale of associated carbon usage from people are concerned about their energy consumption (see London TImes reference).

This is Apple’s new Maiden, North Carolina's cloud computing center.  It is located in one of the poorest regions, after the NC state legislature passed a bill giving the company tax breaks that could total more than $66 million over the next 10 years. Somehow that’s a lot less romantic than poets’ images of clouds.

Not so fluffy and romantic are they? 

There are some significant problems with cloud computing starting with security.  You have no control over your data.  The main assets in every organization are its data files with valuable client, research, patient or customer information.  A proper security model for cloud computing is not yet developed. Security, privacy and compliancy is still difficult for cloud solutions, especially for public cloud services. There is special concern about backup, restore and disaster recovery. Then there is the problem of risk of data loss due to improper backups or system failures. The Google Oregon site and the Apple North Carolina site are both within high to moderate risk of earthquake zones.  Think Fukashima, Japan. Oh, but that can never happen here, right?

Site inspections and audits by outside agencies are problematic.  Another concern is availability. Constant connectivity is required by most users which may be compromised by network failures.  There are also questions of compliance with various standards. e.g. HIPAA, SOX, PCI, SAS 70.  Since all knowledge about the working of the cloud (e.g. hardware, software, virtualization, deployment) is concentrated at the Cloud provider, it is difficult to get grip on the how to effectively use the Cloud facility. Integration with equipment hosted in other data centers is difficult. For example, printers and local security IT equipment (e.g. access systems) is difficult to integrate. Also (personal) USB devices or smart phones or groupware and email systems are difficult to integrate.

The long and short of it is that Cloud Computing wasn’t what Percy Bysshe Shelley had in mind when he wrote his poem, The Cloud.  Cloud computing is very tangible and is almost entirely about money, your money, and it is not without disadvantages and risk, no matter how much computer marketers may attempt to conjure up soft and fuzzy celestial images with their ads.

Casey, S Cloud Verse, Cloud Appreciation Society.  Accessed 3-30-11

Cloud Tweaks (2010) Video fly-over of Apple’s New Cloud Computing Facility. Feb. 23, 2010

Higgenbotham, S. (2008) 10 Reasons Enterprises Aren't Ready to Trust the Cloud. July 1,2008. GIGAOM;

Leake, J. and Woods, R (2009)  Revealed: the environmental impact of Google searches. The Times: The Sunday Times. Jan. 11, 2009.

Markoff, J and Hansell, T (2006) Hiding in Plain Sight, Google Seeks More Power, New York Times,  June 16, 2006.  Accessed 3-28-11.

Miller, M.(2009) Cloud computing: Pros and Cons for end users. InformIT. Feb. 13, 2009.

Rosencrance, L.  (2006) Top-secret Google data center almost completed. Computer World. 6-16-2006

Shelley, P.B. The Cloud, PoemHunter.Com,  Accessed 3-31-11

Sun Microsystems, Chapter 7 "Distributed Application Architecture". Sun Microsystem. Retrieved 3-211

Vaquero, LM, (2009) A break in the clouds: towards a cloud definition, Newsletter: ACM SIGCOMM Computer Communications Review. 2009: 39 (1) ACM Digitalo Library.

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