Cloudy Horizons

I was asked to write this article for an IT publication a month ago but missed the publishing deadline. Due to the wonders of modern technology the world is still able to share and acclaim my wise words:

Photo Google Schwag (CC) Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Some rights reserved

Photo Google Schwag (CC) Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Some rights reserved

The Cloud application of the moment is Facebook. Facebook represents the web within the web. It is a privately owned world that is more populated than most countries. It allows individuals and businesses to create their own identities, manage their contacts, find new contacts, conduct business and develop applications specific to Facebook’s technologies.

It seems everyone is “on” Facebook, whether you are a government department, Telecommunications business or simply someone with funny cat photos to share.

But there is a cloud on the horizon. The Bloomburg Business Week is reporting that Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg, may have signed a contract which if upheld, would see the company transfer ownership (http://www.businessweek.com/news/2010-07-20/facebook-lawyer-unsure-zuckerberg-signed-contract.html). In addition to its ownership uncertainty, Facebook has a nasty habit of making unilateral changes to the usage policies, effectively the contract it has with each Facebook user. This is a risky proposition for businesses relying on Facebook for their future, and for individuals putting significant parts of their life on one platform.

While I was in the UK recently I heard about a musical instrument supplier. They have sold their goods through Amazon for many years, with Amazon taking about a 7 percent commission. That week Amazon announced that it was getting into the musical instrument vending business itself. Co-incidentally Amazon was also unilaterally doubling the commission they were charging to third party music instrument vendors.

So what do these anecdotes mean for people who have invested everything in “the cloud”. The people who rely on Facebook, or Google apps, or Amazon, to be the “internet of everything”, for their livelihood?

How do you shift from one vendor to another? If their infrastructure is cutting out, or the terms of service becoming more and more unfavourable, or your ISP is favouring a competitor’s traffic, or your clients are moving from one application to another (Bebo anyone?) how do you move? How do you get your data and applications transferred? Is the data you created even yours in the first place?

The success of “the cloud” is also its massive failing – scale. The scale of the cloud has pushed down costs and increased convenience significantly. But, as Google’s Vint Cerf points out, there are no accepted standards or protocols for cloud services and systems to store and exchange information and systems.

With the huge scale that the internet has enabled comes an equally huge imbalance in the nature of the relationship between cloud service vendors and users. The magnitude of the lock-in that users of cloud applications find themselves committed to far outweighs anything that has preceded the current phenomenon.

So, what do we do? If the convenience of cloud services is impossible to ignore then the pitfalls and potential for “all of business” disasters are should be evaluated and mitigated.

To start with, your data should be available to you on a device of your choosing at any time and in an open format that can be easily recognised by different software systems. This means that you should be able to backup and download your data easily and at regular intervals.

Secondly, you should easily be able to transfer from one platform to another. The best way of achieving this is to ensure that whatever cloud service you are using is based on software that is free and open source. This is easier than you might imagine. For every Google app, Twitter, Amazon Web Service, there is an open source alternative. Most, if not all, of these also run as cloud services. Examples include WordPress, Status.net, Teambox, RedMine, FengOffice and WikiMedia. Using open source cloud services ensures that transferring from one provider to another is not just possible, but straightforward. It also guarantees that your data can be processed if you decide you have to make the shift.

To conclude, the advantages of cloud services have been well sold, I would say oversold. They represent a privatisation of what we used to call “The Internet”. The pitfalls are less well expressed but they exist.

The trick for businesses and government in particular is to ensure that they avoid becoming enslaved on a scale that has never previously been possible. Fortunately free and open source software proves, yet again, to be an effective way of getting the best of all worlds – access to high quality technology and services without the proprietary capture and other business risks that are a feature of many cloud services.

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