Rise of personal cloud rests on interoperability, security

Personal cloud gives users benefits of ease and convenience, but lack of interoperability, security and potential high network access costs can drag adoption down, note analysts.

Personal clouds offer potential benefits in today's multi-device, Web 2.0 era but the adoption and popularity of having one's own cloud to store and manage personal data, will ultimately hinge on interoperability, security and affordability factors.

Essentially, a personal cloud enables users to store their data in a remote storage medium and gives them complete control to permit or restrict access between multiple devices and third parties they choose, said Mayank Kapoor, ICT research analyst at Frost & Sullivan, who's based in Malaysia.

"Personal cloud is not really a new concept; it's only due to the more recent buzz surrounding cloud computing that a new name has been coined", he told ZDNet Asia in an e-mail interview.

Consumers have been using Web-based e-mail, which can be compared to the initial cloud environments, since the late 1990s and following that, social networking sites gained popularity, Kapoor noted.

Besides online storage locker services, there have also been "niche personal clouds" such as those for photos including Picasa and Flickr that boast various value-added services, he explained. Today, notable providers of personal cloud services include Apple's iCloud and Dropbox, he added.

Saurabh Sharma, Ovum's India-based senior analyst of market intelligence, said there has been "good interest", of late, in such personal Web-based services among users who want to host and manage their own cloud environment.

With the proliferation of social networks, online services and various devices including mobile gadgets for personal computing, Sharma noted that managing different and extensive data streams had become a lot more difficult. This led to the emergence of personal clouds which began garnering attention and interest in 2008 and 2009, he told ZDNet Asia in an e-mail.

"[Today], we're starting to see some practical implementations," he said, pointing to various vendors and service providers, such as Apple and Hewlett-Packard, that have created dedicated portfolios of personal cloud applications and services.

Convenience, ease major draws
The personal cloud functions like a platform that provides and aggregates applications and services, designed for definite and well-defined tasks and to be easily accessed, as and when required by the user, Sharma said. It also provides the ability for customization or configuration, for instance, allowing the user to permit or restrict specific individuals from accessing applications or data, he added.

Kapoor concurred, emphasizing that the "greatest benefit" of the personal cloud for users is the convenience it offers in their daily lives.

He added that most consumers today own multiple devices--from laptops to smartphones and tablets--and they want access to all of their data on all of these gadgets. A personal cloud is "the perfect solution" for this, given that broadband quality, speed and affordability have improved significantly in recent years, he noted.

It is also easy to set up, considering all that is required for most cases is a user signup, he added.

Kapoor also noted that thanks to real-time syncing capabilities--where any new data added to one device can be automatically synced with the cloud and made available to other devices or users connected to the Web--personal clouds enable backup and disaster recovery contingency, which is a major incentive for many users.

At the same time, this brings about opportunities for increased collaboration between users through the authorized sharing of data, he said.

Interoperability, security the barriers
Nonetheless, while most users primarily understand such benefits, they are unaware of or ignore certain risks that are associated with putting personal data into Web-based clouds, Kapoor cautioned.

With the rise of bring-your-own (BYO) device among more workplaces and work-related data stored in consumer devices, understanding the potential risk of cloud services is crucial when users connect to personal clouds that do not offer enterprise-grade security, he said.

Sharma agreed, noting that security and privacy provisions of personal clouds are imperative considering that the confidentiality or sensitivity of data they hold can be very high.

The Ovum analyst observed that users want a level of security and privacy that is more robust than what is generally, and currently provided, through personal clouds--even though they may not be willing to pay the costs or fees associated with such a framework.

Personal cloud services providers, therefore, have to evaluate the need to include robust security and privacy measures into their offerings without expecting that users may be able to or inclined to pay a premium, he said. He noted that this would be a "difficult proposition to balance and sustain".

Besides security, Sharma highlighted interoperability--or the lack thereof--as another major roadblock to greater adoption.

Personal cloud services should integrate seamlessly with as many devices and platforms as possible because users simply do not want to get locked into a service without the option of transferring data to other devices they own, he explained.

Again, this is difficult to achieve and will take a while before an ecosystem emerges, comprising service providers, OS (operating system) players and device manufacturers, which have come together and "chart out standards for the personal cloud services", he said.

Kapoor added that with the ever increasing amount of data each user generates and stores today, the limited availability of high-speed mobile networks could hinder data transfer speeds, and consequently, also impede users accessing their personal clouds.

This could also lead to high cost and might deter users, he pointed out. Unless one had an unlimited data plan, the cost of traffic would result in higher data usage charges, he said, adding that to store heavy data files such as video, users would have to fork out higher investments for storage.

His one advice to consumers considering personal cloud: "In a world where every other company is calling its solutions 'cloud-based', one needs to go beyond the marketing fluff to understand what is actually being offered.

"Furthermore, with the [growing] number of service providers in the market, there is always the risk of some going out of business," said Kapoor.