Cloud computing has its elephants. One of the biggest is the threat of your cloud provider disappearing overnight, taking your data with it. Right now, that's an elephant with plenty of PR – with the basic mechanisms of corporate finances failing, there's little confidence that even the most assiduous can pick a company with a guaranteed future. And there are plenty of horror stories to fuel pessimism – as Phil Wainewright, blogger for our sister site ZDNet US, explains:
"At the end of October, Digital Railroad, a photo archiving and commerce site used by over 1,500 professional photographers, shut down without warning. Users had just 48 hours to recover images stored on the site. Even if all of them had been in a position to log on and tried to download their data, it’s doubtful there would have been enough bandwidth to service the demand."
The creditors moved in, repossessed the servers, wiped the hard disks and sold the hardware.
And even if your data ultimately resides on one of the big name clouds – Amazon, Google, Microsoft – and you're buying a service from a cloud reseller, then you're at the mercy of that reseller, that reseller's lines of credit, all of that good stuff. That's before you consider the possibilities of a technical problem that just won't go away.
As Wainewright asks rhetorically – does that mean that cloud computing is too risky to contemplate? Hardly. He recommends you back up your data, locally or with some other cloud provider, and keep a disaster recovery plan to hand that treats your collapsing cloud supplier as you would a dead hard disk. He also suggests an "SaaS Code of Conduct" that promises at least some continuity of service.
Yes indeed: yet there has to be more. For all its potential, cloud computing will only work if it has the confidence of its clients, and that means having more than just a code of conduct. There are interesting models elsewhere in industry – with UK travel agents, for example, the industry association ATOL guarantees a certain level of service to customers even if their holiday provider goes down during their holiday. The insurance business is built on a skein of risk-sharing that has been maintained even under the current extreme duress. These concepts will be essential to the cloud community, both in terms of what happens if a company goes away completely, or if it finds it has lost client data.
Yet these ideas only work if there are mechanisms that allow rescue. That means basic levels of interoperability, standards and process of the sort that IT knows very well how to do, but so often chooses to ignore or subvert in the name of commercial imperative. That is the ultimate elephant: for all that cloud companies choose to assume the foggy mantle of The Cloud, that mythical, universal matrix of services that Just Works no matter where you choose to connect, what we actually have is a loose commonwealth of competing nations with strict borders, enforced residency requirements and strong barriers to multiple citizenships Even the common language is broken down into mutually incomprehensible dialects.
With such a setup, the chances of painless evacuation from a disaster area are minimal – and the odds of significant settlement during these times of frequent upheaval enormously reduced. There are plenty of settlers willing and able to make the exodus to the promised lands, but unlike the days of the Darien Scheme, we're all well-informed about the downside of taking promise over proof.
When you consider the other advantages of an open, shared, interoperable environments, it seems even more remarkable that this most pressing concern of would-be cloud hoppers remains unaddressed by those who want us to believe. The cloud must bind itself together first before we can come aboard.