May 122011

I understand why some people think that “the cloud” is a good idea. Who wouldn’t love the idea of always being able to access your data, regardless of where you are, without having to say “the file is on my PC at home” or without having to deal with syncing up data you’ve modified on the road with the older version still at home?

Google recently introduced their Chromebook, which is effectively a netbook that runs a Chrome as a desktop web browser – and that’s it. Everything runs under that browser and everything is stored somewhere within the ethereal void out in the Internet (meaning Google’s servers). Benefits to this are familiar to those of us who have dealt with technology like thin clients – even if you log on from a completely device, everything is as it was when you logged off the last time.

But for everyone who believes so strongly in the cloud, I have some phrases for you: “PlayStation Network” and “Amazon Web Service”.

We are now in the third week of the PSN shutdown, caused by a successful security breach that resulted in the theft of personal information including credit card data for over 77 million PSN subscribers. Because of the continuing shutdown, multiplayer gaming on the PlayStation 3 is impossible and PS3 users cannot purchase games or other content from the PlayStation Store.

The frustration that has been caused for millions of people because of the PSN breach is almost palpable. Upon hearing about the loss of credit card data, hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people immediately canceled the credit card that was linked to their PSN account, which is a huge inconvenience for a lot of people. Multiplayer gamers are almost apoplectic at being unable to go around shooting other players. Gamers who bought the PS3 version of Portal 2 in order to play for free on their PC are unable to play on either version because they can’t link their PSN and Steam accounts. Hulu Plus and PlayStation Plus subscribers have had no access to the content that they are paying for.

The PSN shutdown is also making life miserable for game developers. Capcom has claimed that they are losing millions of dollars because no one can access the PlayStation Store to buy their games.

But Sony is not alone in the world of cloud failures. In April and May 2011 Amazon Web Services suffered from a number of outages. Amazon even had to admit that a small portion of their customers (less than 1%) would actually lose data because they were unable to recover the data after services were restored. If any of those lost documents contained business-critical data and those business trusted “the cloud” to be safe and reliable, the loss could have had a very significant impact on their business. How would you like to be the person to tell the Vice President of Sales that “We just lost the presentation that we were about to make to our highest-priority client this afternoon”?

Whereas PSN and AWS demonstrate the reason why trusting in cloud services is at the current time a very dangerous idea, a very practical reason exists for not having everything stored somewhere on the Internet. Even if the cloud service that we use is up and running, it’s of no value if we have no Internet access to be able to utilize that cloud service.

As much as we’d like to think that broadband is ubiquitous, we are probably never going to see 100% broadband coverage (affordable coverage) on the entire surface of the earth in our lifetime. All of us have been in areas where there is no Internet connectivity – not even data coverage through our cell phones – and all of us have had Internet outages at some point.

Try driving through the mountainous areas in northern Pennsylvania or western Virginia to see how many areas have no Internet connection. Even driving to Boston for PAX East I experienced an area near the Pennsylvania/New York border where I had a full cellular signal but no 3G signal. My Garmin GPS worked just fine because the maps are stored locally on the device; however, Google Maps on my Android phone was unable to pull any map data because I had no 3G access. (In case you’re wondering, I had Google Maps running on my phone so my wife could see where I was through Latitude.) Once again, the cloud proved to be a fickle accomplice.

My distrust in the cloud is reflected in my distrust in digital download services. Yes, I’ve purchased my share of PC, PlayStation, and Xbox Live content as a download; however, what happens when the hard drive fails? All of that content has to be downloaded again, assuming that you have not reached your maximum number of allowed downloads. (PSN for example only allows you to download your media twice before you have to buy it again.) And good luck downloading that content if your Internet connection happens to be down. Obviously, downloading is not an issue if the media was purchased on a disc instead of as a digital download.

The same argument does for streaming services. I love Netflix, but watching a movie via streaming means nothing if there is no Internet connectivity. Having the DVD or Blu-ray, however, means never having to worry about connectivity.

Convenience and the desire for instant gratification fuel too much confidence in cloud and streaming services. Several products exist to allow automatic syncing between files that are stored in different locations, so worrying about having multiple versions of the same document or having to copy files back and forth from a USB stick are moot points. The cloud has its place as a backup facility, but that’s all it will ever be good at and it should never be used for any other purpose.

To quote a friend of mine, “He who trusts in the cloud will eventually get hit by lightning.”  Sony and Amazon have proven that.