The Cloud Is Not Your Savior

We’ve been talking about the cloud for how many years now? Do you know what it is? Are you just too embarrassed to ask because you think you should know? More importantly, does it even matter if you know? Most people who don’t work directly in a technology-related field, and some who do, are satisfied just thinking of the cloud as a nebulous network of computers and storage that conveniently exists. Things go into it, things come out of it, and they don’t care how or why, as long as those things don’t get lost. Some people have come to think of the cloud as a greater good that makes everything work better, cheaper, faster, and more dependably – almost savior-like… “my stuff is in ‘the cloud’ so I can get to it anywhere, anytime, and on any device.” All good and, in theory, correct.

As we continue to mature as a society, technologically that is, I believe it’s important for everyone to have at least a fundamental understanding of what some of these big concepts mean – just so they aren’t so nebulous, and so we don’t rely on them as saviors for what is increasingly becoming a hope chest to store our digital treasure.

The best way to do that is probably to answer some of the most common questions.

Where is the cloud? Just like the clouds we see in the sky, the cloud is everywhere, interconnected through a vast landscape of data centers around the planet, all playing a critical, and sometimes redundant, role in holding our data and moving it from here to there. Everywhere there is an internet connection and a device to connect, the cloud is accessible. That device could be a computer, a phone, an automobile, or even a refrigerator. Yes, many refrigerators are cloud-connected, like many other common household appliances – garage door openers, thermostats, lights, switches, door locks, and so on. The cloud is the network on the network that connects your local endpoint, like a refrigerator (via Xfinity, AT&T, public wifi, etc), as a device registered uniquely in this massive array of digital identifiers so that it can be accessed securely from anywhere else.

Who owns the cloud? In a word, nobody. Much like the internet, the cloud isn’t owned by any one entity. Internet, infrastructure, application, and telecommunication organizations all play a role in the cloud’s existence. There are many dominant companies that come to mind, like Google, Amazon, and Microsoft, who are all major cloud players, along with a host of others that operate behind the scenes to make cloud applications possible. There are endless numbers of companies that operate ubiquitous applications in the cloud, like YouTube (Google), Facebook, Netflix, and of course thousands more. While many of these companies own their data and communication infrastructure, most also rely heavily on each other for various services to be successful – essentially forming the cloud. For example, Netflix runs its entire content (video) distribution from Amazon’s S3 Cloud Storage platform. Those kinds of dependencies are everywhere. So, while many companies own the applications that we access in the cloud, the cloud itself, or the vast network on which these applications operate is really owned by no one company. All rely on each other for redundancy, fail-over, distribution and so on.

How much does the cloud cost? It’s mostly free to consumers, but that’s tricky. Sure, you can connect to any public wifi hotspot and access endless amounts of free data and services through applications that are in the cloud, but most premium applications come with a fee. One important value that cloud-based computing has brought to our digital experience is a subscription-based model for many services we once paid a larger one-time fee, like software that got installed on one device only to be out of date very quickly. By accessing these cloud applications through multiple devices over the internet, we can all agree that the overall experience is a magnitude better than it used to be. Upgrades, bug fixes, feature additions, can all be added with little or no intervention from the end-user. To summarize, while the cloud infrastructure is free (mostly), a cost is associated with premium services.

Where is my data in the cloud? Simple answer is, who knows and who cares? Would I store all of my important documents on a Google drive and not take care to have hard copies or redundant copies stored somewhere else? No, I would not. Now it’s not likely that your Google drive will ever go up in smoke. The sophisticated redundant storage and recovery processes that cover your data virtually guarantee that. But, that doesn’t take into account user error, account disruption, or even a security breach. Back to the question of where in the cloud it is… it’s anywhere it needs to be and often times split into many places. While your device may be showing you a nice, tidy interface to access your digital life, it may exist on multiple storage devices in multiple countries. Depending on what the data is, how large or small it is, how often it is accessed, where it is accessed from, etc, the storer of your data may decide for any number of reasons to cache it near you, offload it to bulk storage in a data farm in a faraway country, or push it around to other data centers when balance is required. As long as you can access it reasonably immediately, you shouldn’t care. But, you should always follow the basic rule of having redundant copies of anything that you can not afford to lose. The cloud is not your savior.

Is the cloud secure? Mostly. In almost all ways, storing your data in the cloud is more secure than keeping it on your own device. If a computer is stolen, for example, everything stored on it is stolen too. When those files are also stored in the cloud, downloading them to a new computer is simple. Cloud application providers also use various rules and encryption to make it difficult for hackers. That said, your security is only as good as you make it. Most big cloud providers have multiple mechanisms in place to detect intrusion, whether through two-factor authentication, device filtering, or just simple blacklists, your data is usually pretty safe in the cloud. That doesn’t mean you are free to set passwords like “123456” or “qwerty”. Most secure systems won’t allow you to do that, but many are more lenient. So use good judgment and you should be OK.

This answers some of the most basic questions that often come up about this thing we deem the cloud. No, the cloud is not here to save us. It has made our everyday digital life so much different – but I hesitate to say better. The cloud is nebulous. It lurks. And, while most of us don’t understand what it is, we expect it to be there, and we’ve come to depend on it. That’s a double-edged sword because we don’t own it. No one owns it. We put great trust in something no one owns and few understand to deliver services that are convenient, if not important, to our everyday existence. Thank you cloud for what you do, but you are not our savior.

September 12, 2019