Posted in: Technology

Who owns the keys to the clouds?

Living in the clouds

Make no mistake about it – we are headed to the cloud(s).

There is too much money invested and continuing to be invested for us to turn back now. Amazon and Google have been there already in differing ways and with the announcement today at Microsoft’s PDC of the Windows Azure Platform the company has made it quite plain that it plans on being a dominant player in the cloud marketplace.

This announcement follows on the heels of a week or so of interesting discussions about cloud computing that was started out by Tim O’Reilly’s post on October 26th called Web 2.0 and Cloud Computing which dragged in such luminaries as Nicholas Carr, Mathew Ingram and Alan Patrick.

While the discussion was centered around the economics of cloud computing and whether or not such things as network effect would have any impact on the adoption and proliferation of cloud computing one really needs to go back to the starting point of this whole discussion. It started back on August 1st with an excellent post by Hugh Macleod titled The Cloud’s Best Secret (which I wrote my thoughts about on my personal blog) in which he suggested that there could be the possibility of a single company dominating this new cloud infrastructure

But nobody seems to be talking about Power Laws. Nobody’s saying that one day a single company may possibly emerge to dominate The Cloud, the way Google came to dominate Search, the way Microsoft came to dominate Software.

Monopoly issues aside, could you imagine such a company? We wouldn’t be talking about a multi-billion dollar business like today’s Microsoft or Google. We’re talking about something that could feasibly dwarf them. We’re potentially talking about a multi-trillion dollar company. Possibly the largest company to have ever existed.

It is this idea that has sparked the current conversation but I believe some more basic points are being missed in the conversation. While all these smart folks were getting all worked up over whether or not the cloud was even a serious marketplace for the enterprise through to whether the Web 2.0 philosophy would be the power behind the clouds they were for the most part sidestepping a key part of the marketplace.

As fun as it might be to get into a tussle of semantics over what network effects might or might not mean this does nothing to address the impact that moving to the cloud will have on us, the users, and even more broadly on our society. Are we even ready for the huge impact it will have? Are we ready and willing to hand over the entirety of our lives; work and personal, to the various gatekeepers for them to control?

Let me clarify right from this point on I do believe that we are headed to the cloud and in one sense I am excited by the potential it holds. However there is also a part of me that believes that we need to step very carefully as we move onto this new terrain. We need to truly understand what we could be giving up in exchange for this globalization of our identities, our lives. We also need to be aware that once we make the move there will be going no back. We will be locking ourselves into a global walled garden with only one way in and one way out. We need to understand who controls the keys to this new world we are being shown.

At this point I believe the keys being held by others breaks down to the four sections below with the first being

Platform and Application Access and Usage by the User

While Microsoft is proposing a blend of access through its Software Plus Services (S+S) the majority of cloud computing is using Software as a Service (SaaS). Microsoft’s idea is that you can use the software as normal on your computer but the data would be kept on the cloud but totally accessible by you using any compatible device that can connect to the web. This would be done primarily through their Live Services and Live Mesh platforms. Regardless of where you are as long as your device; whether it be a desktop, laptop or mobile device, you can sign in and access your data. This allows you to leverage the power of your device and installed software to work with your data on the cloud.

The other concept; SaaS, is the one being used by the majority of cloud application and service providers at this point. This method only requires that you have a device that can connect to the web and have an installed browser. All your work is done via the browser and for me this is a drawback as you are limited to whatever handled by a browser. For the majority of people who are use to things like Gmail or Google Docs this isn’t really a problem but once you start raising the stakes of an applications capabilities and what they are being asked to do this limitation does become a problem.

As Ted Dziuba pointed out once, try pushing out an enterprise size database table on any of the current web based database applications and you quickly discover how pointless that exercise is. The problem is two fold when comes to trying to do everything through a browser. First you are stuck in a single thread process which means that if you are doing this from a desktop; or even most laptops now, you are woefully under utilizing your machine. The other problem is that most of the wizardry being done with web based applications are based around javascript and I’m sorry it doesn’t even compare to trying to do the same thing with an application coded in C, C++, Cocoa for the Mac or even.NET for Windows.

This is why we have been seeing more and more web apps that are just good enough because they are limited by what ever can be delivered through an HTTP stream which again is a single process. They don’t have the robustness that even an iPhone App that is compiled to run on the iPhone platform and they definitely don’t have the depth of capabilities that you find on installable desktop or laptop applications.

In effect we are being trapped into a level of applications that will never utilize the full capabilities of the desktop, laptop and given the increasing power of mobile devices web apps won’t keep up either.

Platform and Application Obligations by the Providers

Cloud computing is a rather nebulous term and really for a good breakdown of what it is Tim O’Reilly’s post does a good job of it; but it basically comes down to three different types

  1. Utility Computing – people like Amazon, Sun
  2. Platform as a Service – people like Google and Microsoft
  3. Cloud-based end-user applications – Google, Facebook, Twitter and most of the social media services

While all three have inherent problems the first two are the ones that we should be most concerned about. The utility aspect has a good record as far as uptime is concerned but as we saw with the Amazon outage not long ago they do happen and when it happens it can take down any number of cloud based services in the process. What happens if there is a prolonged outage; whether it be by natural causes or otherwise. How will we as individuals and companies deal with this loss of services. Additionally from a enterprise level point of view what happens if for whatever reason you want to leave the cloud. James Governor points to this problem when he quotes Alan Williamson in a post

Last up was Alan Williamson. summarised eloquently here:

“His main message was that with cloud infrastructures problems don’t magically go away, they just shift. You don’t have scalability or storage problems any more, but you need to constantly monitor the cloud and your application in it. Alan pointed out examples when Amazon’s cloud failed and their applications got cut off from the Internet. As a solution, he proposed deploying the application on more than one cloud so that you have resilience. This requires writing the application in a way that can be easily ported to different providers, which in itself might be a challenge. One idea that was really striking was their analysis of getting off the cloud to a dedicated infrastructure again — apparently it would take them about three weeks of full-bandwidth transfer to download the data that they have in the cloud, making it virtually impossible to go back.”

Nice- so much for “freedom to leave”. The service might support it, but with massive data sets, portability ain’t so easy… Mi compadri Stephen O’Grady recently posted some good thoughts on Cloud Standards but its also worth considering the physical limits of data portability (we might be talking about flowing a terabyte of data, not justan email address). To often we assume everything on the web is instantaneous. We’re talking about the Physics, rather than the Economics of Data Portability. Data volumes will certainly be a key challenge for data portability, which is one reason my money is on the Synchronised Web.

Along with that we have to wonder what happens if we piss off a cloud provider. what happens to our application if we are a company and as a result what happens to our customers data. What are supplier agreements; SLAs, worth which is a point James Grovernor raises in another post

… but here Neil, pointing to a review of cloud computing services, focuses on the issue of supplier agreements, SLAs, or their lack in cloud computing. Its a really important point.

In a cloud computing environment, the vendor holds the strings. If at any time the vendor decides that a customer is in violation of the terms of its service, that customer’s application can go dark now, immediately, and completely unilaterally — SLA be damned.

Paul Downey likes to say The Web is Agreement, but perhaps more importantly for businesses The Web Is Contract.

So really what happens to our data, to our lives if a supplier suddenly goes dark or disaster strikes – where are we left then?

The Social Impact of Living on the Cloud

There is no denying the fact that as we progress faster and faster towards ubiquitous connection to the web and the cloud of data upon which it sits our live – our society is going to change. The question is whether or not we are ready for that change because it will become all encompassing. Where do borders start and where do they end when your life – that data that make it up – is spread all around the globe. Who’s laws govern our data and in turn can have an effect on us. We all know the reports of Google searches being used to convict people of crimes. What happens if they have your esoteric thoughts, your saved images or any part of your life really to search through? What rights do we have at that point?

One of the best post I have read yet on the social implications of living on the cloud has to be Cloud Culture written by Kevin Kelly and in my opinion it should be required reading for anyone interested in cloud computing. While the post covers many of the possibly social implications of living on the cloud two of his points stand out

The Extended Self. Where is my stuff? If I google my own mail to find out what I said, or rely on the cloud for my memory, where do “I” end and it starts? If all the images of my life, and all the snippets of interest, and all my notes, and all my chitchat with friends, and all my choices, and all my recommendations, and all my thoughts, and all my wishes — if all this is sitting somewhere — but nowhere in particular — it changes how I think of myself. What happens if it were to go away? A very distributed aspect of me would go away. If McLuhan is right that tools are extensions of our selves — a wheel an extended leg, a camera an extended eye — than the cloud is our extended soul. Or, if you prefer, our extended self.

[…]

SharePrivacy. Privacy is over. Or more precisely, privacy as we imagined it is over. The extended self requires a different finesse for grappling with the levels of intimacy humans need. The binary functions of public/private, or even friend/not friend have to yield to more nuanced, more complex ways to describe our relationships. The Chinese have a unique name for every type of cousin (younger than you, older than you, your mom’s brother, your dad’s sister’s son, etc.); the cloud will breed distinct ways of relating to agents we know, agents we once knew, agents we know we don’t know, and so on. Sharing is the foundational action on the cloud. Some types of sharing will come to resemble what we used to call privacy. It is impossible to share the same cloud to do everything and not evolve our notions and powers of sharing.

Are we really ready as a society for this kind of momentous shift?

Ability to Access the Web and the Cloud

We are a class based society. Whether we like to admit it or not we are. We make distinctions everyday between rich and poor, worker or disabled, productive or just a lazy slob. There is another class distinction that is growing everyday and may overwhelm all others and that is the technological division that is happening in our society. It is helping the rich get richer and the poorer slide further down the social scale.

If we live is a society that requires this always connected lifestyle in order to be a productive member of society what happens to those that can’t afford the connectivity cost? While we might like to believe that being connected is something every person should have the fact is that the telecoms control those keys to the cloud and there is no gray area of their control. With them access is either on or it is off – you pay the bill or you don’t have access.

This center of control to me is the most dangerous because it doesn’t matter how sound your platform maybe or how reliable you service is if those people that control the very access to the web and the cloud decide to hold it ransom we’re screwed. I know some folks have suggested that by that time we will have either made access a state right or it will be subsidized in some way or another. I have grave doubts about that as we are talking about mega corporations that have been around for a very long time and have become powers in their own right and that power isn’t something you will be able to take away without a fight.

In the end unless someway is found around this potential hijacking of our access to our lives we will see the biggest class separation we have ever seen in the history on mankind.

Wrapping up

The cloud holds a lot of potential for us as a human race and while I don’t know if as a society we are really ready for the cost to reach that potential it is something we can hope for. There are a lot of roadblocks in the way but then our growth has never been an easy road – this time is no different.

Oh and one last thought – there is a school of thought within the artificial intelligence community championed by Raymond Kurzweil and his followers that if you combine enough computers together there is always the chance that artifical intelligence may form on its own.

And interesting prospect given our road to the cloud.

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