The curse of free cloud services: a cautionary tale

The curse of free cloud services: a cautionary tale

Summary: Cloud services have their failings, and I'm not talking about the usual crashes and cyberattacks. No, sometimes the service just goes away.


I am a big fan of cloud services. I've been migrating more and more of my local services to the cloud.

There are a couple of reasons for this. First, I like being able to delegate responsibility for the operation of an application to a cloud vendor. When I moved my company off of local QuickBooks to QuickBooks Online, for example, I no longer had to maintain the QuickBooks software, the multi-user server minutiae -- or provide internal tech support.

See also: Quickbooks or Sithbooks? Bookkeeping on the dark side

I also like moving to the cloud because I tend to access my information from a lot of different locations and computers. I work in my main office, my den, my living room, on my tablet, on my laptop, in the studio, in the garage, and so forth. Keeping all my data synchronized on all those machines gets old after a while.

But cloud services have their failings, as well. And I'm not talking about the usual crashes and cyberattacks.

See also: Is the cloud still safe? How to survive a cloud computing disaster.

See also: Cloud storage and backup: Is it safe?

No, sometimes the service just goes away. Google users are familiar with the phenomenon. Loyal users of Google Health were disappointed last November when the service was shut down.

See also: You have a month to wrap up your health records at Google Health users almost lost their minds when it appeared the service was being shuttered by Yahoo, only to have it bought up at the last minute. And when it looked like Xmarks was going to the great cloud in the sky, I even took the Xmarks pledge.

See also: I took the Xmarks pledge and why you should, too.

Now, it's Ta-da List, operated by the well-respected 37signals. Ta-da List is my wife's favorite list management software and when she read the tombstone note on Sunday, I heard her little cry of anguish in the next room.

Ta-da List is free, and 37signals has promised to let existing customers login and manage their lists, but for how long? I've suggest my wife take a look at either Evernote or Toodledo, but that's not the point.

The point is she's invest a lot of time and effort into her lists on Ta-da List, she likes the service and it works for her.

But that's the curse of free services, that's the cautionary tale. Services like Ta-da List cost to operate. They cost to maintain the servers, cost to pay for the bandwidth, and either cost in salaries or time (or both) to maintain the services. Sometimes, it's just not worth it to the operators, much to the dismay of users.

I used to use an online weight lifting logging program called Gym Journal. It was awesome. Every time I lifted, I recorded all my exercises, the reps, the weight, and had a daily chart of everything I did.

Then, one day, I logged in and the service was gone. In its place was a small site with a few articles, and some ads. Worse, all my exercise records were gone as well. The service was free, with a $12 (total!) premium version.

I once ran the numbers on the users I could find on the site and the $12 price, and realized the author probably made less than $7,000 total for all his custom programming work, hosting, and maintenance.

So, whether you're a fan of Gym Journal, Google Health, or like my wife, Ta-da List, take this cautionary tale to heart. If you rely on free (or absurdly cheap) cloud services, the services you love might not be here tomorrow. And neither might your data.

Does that mean I'm going to stop using cloud services? Heck no. But I do intend to at least check into the business model of the services I'm using. If it looks like there's no way it'll make any money and be a cost drain, I probably will do my best to, at the very least, keep backups, reports, or dumps of any of the data I entrust to the cloud provider.

The silver lining in this tale? Forewarned is forearmed. Now you know you need to be sure you can get your data out before the cloud services dissipate.

Topic: Cloud


David Gewirtz, Distinguished Lecturer at CBS Interactive, is an author, U.S. policy advisor, and computer scientist. He is featured in the History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets and is a member of the National Press Club.

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  • Always consider what beach you build your sand castles on

    This is generally good advice for any goods or service, especially those with a weak economic model. Sourceforge is littered with the bones of abandoned projects.
    Your Non Advocate
  • And There Is Always The Fear Of The MPAA/RIAA And Their Minions The FBI

    If you use [b]ANY[/b] cloud based service (paid or unpaid) you stand the chance that your site can vanish into the black hole of "legal take-down". The heavy handed approach the US government has been taking with internet based businesses makes me very cautious about using cloud based services. Between taking down domains for a year without any reasonable explanation, confiscating servers from racks and then putting the server back in the rack a week later, and the complete destruction of Megaupload, I fear for the future of the internet.
    • Either You Are Legal or You Are Not

      Copyright infringment is no longer a joke. It's not heavy-handed by anyone. The artists don't appreciate you sharing their stuff and neither do the record companies. It would mean fewer luxury cars for the people who bring you the stuff to begin with. Are they going to givee up the fancy cars and luxury lifestyles. No. But the music you put up online where thousands can partake of it for free is going to cost you a LOT more in the long-run. That's what the rich people do. They just get richer and someone has to pay for it.
      • Some People Are Just "Collateral Damage"

        Read this so you can truly understand the fallacy of your argument ->
      • But that doesn't mean the authorities are always right...

        ...or that copyright holders always act in good faith.

        Despite what Edwin Meese said all those years ago, suspects are sometimes innocent, or at least, less guilty than the police believe (suspect!=perpetrator).
        John L. Ries
  • Well said

    If the business model isn't there to grow the service, and grow it to a point that a big tech company with the cash to keep it running for years will look at acquiring it, it's difficult to put your sweat into it. Sure we may make mistakes in analyzing it and see a service we thought would last end anyway, but at least we made ourselves informed about the possibilities.
  • Dropbox/Skydrive models are ideal

    My laptop has the Skydrive client installed. If I write a document on the Office web apps, that document is copies to my laptop automatically. If Microsoft shutters Skydrive tomorrow, I still have my data while also having the convenience of accessing it from anywhere (I don't put up data I would have reservations about going public, no matter how secure they promise it is, but that's tangential to the topic at hand).

    If your data exists on a hard disk you don't own at the exclusion of a disk you do, then this kind of problem is bound to happen. The people who own the hard drive do not value your data the way you do. I remember the first wave of online storage with, Filemonkey, Xdrive,, Yahoo Briefcase, and others whose URL I've long forgotten. I put data on them. I haven't the slightest idea what happened to it, who's got it, whether it got overwrote, deleted, sold, or the disk failed and got liquidated at auction.

    The data i burned to CD around that time? It got copied onto a second CD, followed by a DVD, then later onto a NAS, but it still exists.

    Thus, I propose the true moral of the story: USE cloud services, but ensure you have your OWN copy of the data they have.

    • Re: Dropbox/Skydrive models are ideal

      Absolutely agreed! Even without the issue of the cloud service being discontinued, the fact is your internet connection isn't going to guarantee 100% uptime. You should always have local copies of your data!
    • Same with my UbuntuOne

      One thing you are missing at least in your post- encryption.
      Most data I have there is something that I do not mind others looking at. But real data that I put into Ubutnu's cloud *IS* encrypted.
      So you need to backup your data and protect it. The cloud is not doing it for you. It is just for syncing if you are lazy enough to setup nfs or rsync or whatever other OS would do.
      • It Depends Who is Looking

        Supposing you have data that absolutely NOBODY can see. Usually it is because of some law that comes with multi-million dollar fines, like HIPAA (Medical records). Or how about crime-scene details and photos (CJIS, etc.). Does that fact that the employees at these services can, and DO, look at your uploads mean anything? Especially if you are not even allowed to let the dude at the next desk see your stuff? How about people who buy things online or even at a brick-and-mortar store and use a credit card? Who gets to see that? The current cluster of public cloud providers not only don't say they will keep your stuff secure and private, some tell you they have the right to publicly display your data and many say their employees actually DO look at your stuff. Just because the provider encrpts your stuff, that doesn't mean they can't show your uploads off to their advertising partners.
      • Encryption

        You really think I am that naive to rely on someone's encryption?
        I encrypt my files *before* I upload. I have a cron job encrypting (gpg) and rsyncing documents when changes are present.
        And I do not care what fines there are. It is usually hard to prove in court someone looked.
    • Nicely done.

      Very well written and great advice.
    • Re: Dropbox/Skydrive models are ideal

      I'm working on a search tool that connects to the various cloud search providers. For the time being, we just index documents then discard them. Sounds like some might value our keeping a back-up copy around in case of issues with the source system. Would be pretty easy to do but I'd be interested to know if others on this thread have the same concern. Perhaps naively, I always assumed a folding cloud storage company would give users notice and time to get their data out, but I suppose there isn't a strong incentive...
      Paul McReynolds
      • Re: Dropbox/Skydrive models are ideal

        Apologies for the multiple posts. Our product is called Aireum ( if anyone's interested in taking it for a spin. Would love to have some cloud storage connoisseurs' early feedback!
        Paul McReynolds
  • logic has to apply here

    Nothing in life is really free but the problem with many of these start ups is that they pin their hopes on premium memberships which just dont materialise in the numbers they need. Drop box is excellent but I now have 5.8 GB of space free, some of which I have earned through reccommending others who only use the free service. In the meantime they have developed mobile apps and other costly things - I do wonder how long this model is sustainable for. However as a consumer whats to lose - these syncing programmes maintain copies of all the files on my hard drive - so if they dissapear overnight you just seek out the next one.

    It also has a knock on effect for services which dont give tons away for free because they lose business to the ones that do which then in turn puts their service in jeopardy. The whole open source phenomenom relies on someone else paying the people who are developing open source as their side interest - so what if open source overtakes paid software, where will the people currently developing it work to pay their bills.

    We all want a free ride but sooner or later someone has to pay the fare!
    • Open Source

      You're confusing 'open source' with 'free'. Open source means you have access to the source code, the program doesn't have to be free.

      Yes, it is true most open source is free because they kind of both work on the same principle (help the community rather than just help myself).
  • The moral here...

    ...may be to choose open source solutions when possible. Even if the original developer goes away there's still the chance for the product to survive.
  • Free means less secure

    If your not paying anything and the cloud site is making very little maybe from ads or something. I can only imagine how little they put towards security. The real problem with any cloud solution is that you as a user has no ideal how they are handling your information. Of all the people in the World looking to do harm or collect personal information. What is to say they will not find a way to your information? At least I know the information I store on my hardware is somewhere I know and I also know who is accessing it.
    • I have to disagree.

      Free doesn't necessarily mean less secure. I've been very happy with gmail over the years and I access it almost exclusively in the cloud. They were one of the first email providers to move to https and did so long before the ISP email that I pay for did. Ditto with IMAP. The Google DNS and OpenDNS servers both run circles around most ISP's DNS servers from a security and performance stand point. So I don't see how you can argue that free means less. And most of these services have very detailed documents explaining their information handling policies. Now, people may complain about their policies (and many do) but the fact that you see public outcries when these policies are changed attests to the fact that they are published.
      • I Think Waht He is Saying...

        It DOES mean less secure! Think about it. Many of the FREE services are products of a company that has many empoyees and billions of dollars in revenue. Do you think they get this from banmner ads? Or do they share your uploads and data with advertisers? If I work for a government agency with law enforcement and deal with crime scene issues, what happens if I store these photos on their sites? Do I get ads for drunk-driving law firms? How about butcher supply companies? If you don't think this is not happening, try reading the Terms of Service at Google Docs or even Dropbox? Also their FAQ's and privacy policies. If these companies are making billions and you get their product for free, it may not mean you are really getting less, but security has always been an issue with public cloud providers (read GARTNER). It's OK to use these, but don't for a single second believe that nobody is going to see your upload. According to Google every single upload is at least scanned electronically and many are scanned by a live human. And they tell you that they don't take responsibilty for your stuff, even if it is a HIPAA issue.