Cloud computing skepticism

My latest Guardian column, "Not every cloud has a silver lining," is about the dirty secret of cloud computing: most of it is about making a buck off of you by supplying something you can do cheaply and easily for yourself.
Here's something you won't see mentioned, though: the main attraction of the cloud to investors and entrepreneurs is the idea of making money from you, on a recurring, perpetual basis, for something you currently get for a flat rate or for free without having to give up the money or privacy that cloud companies hope to leverage into fortunes...

Now, this makes sense for some limited applications. If you're supplying a service to the public, having a cloud's worth of on-demand storage and hosting is great news. Many companies, such as Twitter, have found that it's more cost-effective to buy barrel-loads of storage, bandwidth and computation from distant hosting companies than it would be to buy their own servers and racks at a data-centre. And if you're doing supercomputing applications, then tapping into the high-performance computing grid run by the world's physics centres is a good trick.

But for the average punter, cloud computing is - to say the least - oversold. Network access remains slower, more expensive, and less reliable than hard drives and CPUs. Your access to the net grows more and more fraught each day, as entertainment companies, spyware creeps, botnet crooks, snooping coppers and shameless bosses arrogate to themselves the right to spy on, tamper with or terminate your access to the net.

Not every cloud has a silver lining


  1. “Cloud” computing is just the mainframe era reinvented for the Internet. It makes sense for certain tasks- like social networks. Some information gains value by being cross-linked to other information, shared and collaborated on, etc.

    But the majority of the information that we deal with on a daily basis isn’t that kind of information.

  2. Rent, this is the direction that capitalism is moving. It’s why Bill Gates is a multi-billionaire. You don’t own your software, you rent it. anyone who works with high end CG apps knows how irks. You purchase a license which entitles you to a subscription service. I suspect all purchases will move towards this model.

  3. FTA: “Investors loved its pay-per-minute model, a model that charged extra for every single “service,” including trivialities such as Caller ID – remember when you had to pay extra to find out who was calling you?”

    News for you: Out here in the wild-wild west, the landline provider still charges $9/mo for caller-id. And to top it off, the _don’t_ offer DSL in my suburban neighborhood. And they wonder why they lose customers to cable and cell.

    Qwest – bringing you yesterday’s services today at tomorrow’s prices.

  4. A common misconception is that cloud services have anything at all to do with social networks or public data. The average consumer sees things like Twitter and cloud backup services for home users and that’s certainly part of it. But it is a small part. The real money for cloud providers is in large corporate IT projects that have nothing to do with social anything.

    Common scenarios:

    companyA needs a warm site for geographic redundancy for corporate HR, billing, purchasing, and sales systems, needs 100 servers and associated storage and needs it yesterday. They can spec all the hardware, rent a cage, and build the system or they can have a cloud provider bring up 100 virtual servers and assign the necessary storage and start working on the system in a week. The internal project with a remote data center would take at least 3-6 months to get started.

    companyB’s dev team is working on the next release of their internal manufacturing automation system in their dev environment that consists of 72 servers and 35 terabytes of storage. They decide that for strategic reasons they will split the dev team so group1 finishes the next release and group2 starts on the release after that. The problem is they need to duplicate their dev environment. Do they have the $ or staff to get 72 servers and all that storage again for a project that will take 7 months? Maybe. Or they could get a cloud provider to provision the CPU and storage necesary and the second they’re done with it give it back and aren’t left holding hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of hardware they don’t need.

    These are everyday common IT projects that have nothing to do with consumers or social media. In these cases, the internal IT people have the knowhow to do it in house but human and financial resources are serious constraints. Cloud services might work for these and many other IT projects. Is cloud always the way to go? Certainly not. Is it another useful tool? Yes. Is all the marketing hype stupid? Yes. Are the network, server and storage engineers that choose cloud services duped by marketing fluff? No.

  5. Cory, you are right… it is something that the majority of us do not need or want, and need have very little interest in — which does not mean they won’t try to sell it to us!

  6. Mail server administration is a very real, very constant nightmare that I don’t wish on anyone, whereas Google Apps has been absolutely worth doing, at least for me and all of my clients. Same goes for email marketing.

  7. One advantage of loud storage is that if my house burns down, taking my computers and backup hard drive with it, I’ll have my writing and business accounts safely stored off site. I work at home and don’t like having all my data eggs in one basket.

  8. Luckily, Bodhipaksa, it’s likely your house won’t burn down. You could say that the same for some computing facility somewhere.

    I’ll never use the cloud computing sort of things myself 0 for various reasons. I really enjoy the privacy of knowing that my data is safe in my own computer. I take my laptop with me don’t have a satellite card (don’t plan on getting one any time soon either) and like to be able to work on my stuff when I want. My computer is fast. I can appreciate the business sense of “indefinitely billing” someone but – c’mon – i like having illustrator or word without anyone upping the price, paying a monthly fee or seeing any ads. Yeesh… i realize i might end up becoming obsolete in this vast new world of “We” but, um, check out the book Anthem by Ayn Rand. She might have been a bit heavy but there is lot to be said for the concept of “mine”, not “ours” . And, once again, I can store my data myself thank you very much.

  9. To be even more careful, I refrain from playing that Talking Heads song or others that promise destruction of a domicile, or even just tearing the roof off the sucka. You can’t be too careful. ;D

  10. The structure of the article appears to be:

    1) define cloud computing
    2) state that cloud computing is not useful for playing solitaire
    3) conclude that google’s business model is bad.

    You can’t fight Moore’s law, and the fact that communication speed is doubling at more than twice the rate of processor speed. Clouds don’t work today, but they will. Inevitably.

    Just who is promoting cloud computing as anything BUT a return of control to centralized businesses? That’s the WHOLE BLOODY POINT. That the people who run the cloud exert a level of control on what you consume which is impossible today isn’t a knock on the cloud model, THAT’S ITS REASON FOR EXISTING.

  11. Amazon just introduced private clouds, which you connect (your org) to through VPN. Thats the sort of thing the cloud will do: let companies stop building their own server rooms, and replacing the equipment, and paying people to maintain boxes. It needs fiber and connection reliability, but it’s not that far off.

    And if that’s to technical think of this: accountants and MBA’s *always* want steady predictable expenses, which the cloud offers and traditional IT is really bad at.

  12. Cloud computing was invented so Microsoft could find a way to charge you by the minute for using Word.

    At least the first time I ever read anything that described “cloud computing” was well over a decade ago, and involved an MS product manager masturbating at the potential for leasing “program time”.

  13. Who is going to pay by the minute (or even by the hour/day) to use MS Word? Maybe a few corporate behemoths.

    There’s just too much competition. Google Docs is free (and how well will it do if they try to start charging), as is Open Office.

    Open Office is already quite good, and it’s getting better. There may be some resistance to switching over, but if the alternative is paying crazy usage charges, end users and small businesses will be doing it by the droves.

  14. I haven’t jumped on the cloud band wagon much yet. Apart from my subscription to Flickr and my gmail account I don’t really use any cloud service.

    That said, my ultimate ‘computer’ would essentially be a very fast internet connection with a whole load of ram and a small flash based hard drive (something that backups the ram every 20 minutes or so). Instead of having apps and documents installed locally I’d have them all installed on my ‘cloud desktop’.

    I also don’t see why the exact same argument that made email go from pay per email to flat rate to free wouldn’t apply to this sort of technology, it’s costly now because it’s new and people are making buckets of money whilst they can, soon enough competition and more consumers will drive prices down just as they did with email.

  15. Disclaimer: I work for Google (as a software engineer) but I don’t speak for them.

    A few things to consider:

    (1) Hard drives aren’t forever. Your article suggests that you can buy a hard drive once and never pay again. Speaking as someone who’s had to replace something like 4-5 dead hard drives in the past 15 years…and had to pay a couple thousand for data recovery the last time…cloud storage is actually fairly cheap by comparison if you factor in the fact that you have to keep replacing hard drives every few years. Same goes with other computer components.

    (2) You mention that networks are slower than hard drives and CPUs. (You probably meant “memory” rather than CPUs considering that you’re talking about data access, but whatever.) This is certainly true at the moment, and may remain so indefinitely. It may not have occurred to you that that cuts both ways: if you want to process a lot of data, it may be better to do it remotely–from a place that’s got a big Internet pipe–rather than slurp it all down to your personal machine over a relatively slow connection.
    (And if you want instead to parallelize/distribute the computation and then send the results to you instead, then that’s another form of cloud computing.)

    1. Hey, I would like to be able to search google easier. And I like googles search engine a lot better than yahoo. After I get a search results page, either I am going to click on a link or go to the next page. It gets old having to navigate my mouse down to the tiny buttons at the bottom of the screen to go to the next page. I was wondering if it was possible to make the whole white part of the screen a button to go to the next page. A huge invisible button. Got a few other ideas…

  16. Sirdook: Just to clarify – “well over a decade ago”. It was the early 90’s, Word was the Shizniz. MS couldn’t even imagine the horror that is Google Docs, poor bastards.

  17. Absolutely agree. But privacy aside there is also a real technical problem with making cloud computing work as efficiently as it is touted to be if you are suffering from poor internet connectivity.

    We’ve all noticed how slow websites become when your wireless signal is low, imagine how frustrated you would be if your word doc stops working because your bedroom is too far from the router in the living room.

    Mobile phone companies are working on wireless internet but if there are still so many areas where you can’t get a mobile signal, you know we have a long way to go for reliable internet connections.

    In addition, if you are looking to host a small website, you are better off going with conventional dedicated server. Cloud computing or server on demand actually works out costing more when you use less.

    When you think about it, it is kind of interesting because hard drive capacity and prices have reached a point you would think we can do MORE offline instead of doing less. If all your applications are online and your photos, videos and files are online… what do you use a PC with 1TB of hard drive for?

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