Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Embrace the Cloud

I've got multiple friends who hate the entire idea of cloud computing.  They despise storing their data on the servers maintained by someone else, particularly Google.

I am rapidly coming to the opposite conclusion, and that's despite having a less than optimal ISP and a connection that rarely gets any faster than about 850kbps.

As I have used the cloud I keep finding things it makes better or simpler.  The first - and most obvious - is backup.  If my cloud providers are backing up the data for me, I don't need to worry about disk failures.  And as I am one who has suffered traumatic data loss in the past - at work, in an environment where there was no automated backup of desktop systems - I really appreciate letting someone else worry about the safety of my data.

There are a couple of obvious counters to that argument.  The first is that my cloud provider might disappear - probably by going bankrupt - taking my data with it, or their backup processes might be less than optimal.  For that reason I tend to use major companies as my providers.  Yes, bad things could happen, but it isn't likely, and the chances of my laptop being dropped or suffering a disk failure are much higher.  And for anything critical I can always download a copy, right?

Another obvious objection is that the cloud provider might decide my data is evil in some way, as when a blogging site shuts down a particular blog for containing spam, even if it really doesn't.  Recovery in that case is problematic, but it is possible if your provider has a system in place to review those decisions.  My own documents and content are pretty tame, and definitely not spammy or copyrighted by anyone else, so the odds on hitting this issue are slim at worst.

Data security is another objection I hear.  "I don't want X to have my data."  And I get that to some degree.  Some people hate the idea of their cloud provider scanning their data to better target ads, or whatever.   At some point, though, it is important to step back and assess the nature of your data usage.  An absolute minimum is really private.  Financial information needs to be kept safe, of course.  Health records might need that kind of protection, but as the nation limps towards electronic storage for that data it might make sense to put what I have online somewhere that my doctor can see it and add to it, right?  I suppose the occasional letter or some such should be private too, but in all honesty, who is going to read such things?  Who would even want to?

If I had something to hide I can imagine feeling very differently about this, but the vast majority of us are law abiding people who value convenience over that level of security, at least as far as trivial data goes.  Yes, I'd love to see something legal that prevents ISPs and cloud service providers from examining your data without your express consent, but until then it's a simple matter of keeping the few things I really care about out of the cloud.  The rest can go there, in theory.  It's convenient.

And make no mistake about it, convenience is what matters.  I like being able to edit documents online and know that they will be there when I change computers, without any complex data migration issues.  I like being able to share some of those documents with others too.

Picking the right cloud supplier, though, also requires examining their systems and polices to see what it takes to get your data out if you need to.  Here, so far, Google is a star.  All the services I use with Google (except Blogger, amusingly) make it easy to get my data out in useful formats.  Google docs, in particular, lets me export to my local disk in several ways that can easily be imported into other applications.

I'm sure there will be replies to this post from those who disagree, and I'll be accused of being simple minded about these things.  But for me, at least for now, the cloud is looking better and better.  Bring on Chrome-OS, too.  Something small and fast would be great.  Even better than Linux.