Computing in the Cloud: Risks and Rewards

Head in the Clouds

What Is Cloud Computing?

Cloud computing has burst onto the computer technology scene like a fast-moving cold weather front. Essentially, “cloud computing” refers to a new concept and delivery model rather than a specific program or platform. Traditionally, when you wanted to achieve a task on your computer such as filling out a spreadsheet or typing a letter, you’d purchase a piece of software at the store, install it, and then use it as long as you owned the computer. Cloud computing turns that notion on its head – the functionality is available via the Internet, not a program sitting on your computer. And, rather than buying a permanent license, cloud-computing services are usually offered according to a cafeteria model where you pay for only what you use when you use it. (And, unlike a real cafeteria, many cloud-based services are free). Cloud computing is now used for a lot more than just replicating the functionality of traditional desktop applications, too, including virtual server hosting, database processing, and lots of technical business operations.

What does Cloud Computing have to do with me?

Perhaps more than you realize! If you’ve ever used a service like Google Docs or Zoho, you’ve been working in the cloud. And even if you’re just using 3rd party applications, like Gmail and Facebook, many of the issues discussed here will apply to you, too.

So, what’s the big deal?

As with most bleeding-edge technologies, it will take humans awhile to get a grip on when, and when not to, utilize the technology. Just remember that when the hammer first became popular, everything started looking like a nail.

The good, the bad, and ways around the ugly

The good: top rewards from working in the cloud:

  1. You can work from anywhere there’s an internet connection. You no longer have to remember which USB memory stick you left that paper on…because the paper’s floating around in the Internet, waiting for you to grab it and keep working on it. Hop on a computer at home, at the office, at grandma’s house, and all of your work is waiting for you.
  2. Collaboration is easy. When you need to work with others on a project or problem, collaborating via documents in the cloud is usually easier than passing around a document via email.
  3. Lots of things are available for free.
  4. It can be efficient. We’ve probably all had the experience of opening up a program on the desktop, only to have it crash and burn. Search for help, possibly re-install the program – all of these things take time. When working in the cloud, maintaining the program is somebody else’s headache.

Having said all of this, there are plenty of issues you should be aware of before trusting applications in the cloud completely.

The bad: the top risks from working in the cloud:

  1. You get what you pay for. When you’re not paying for a service, the company that makes the service available will not necessarily prioritize your needs and requests. This includes low to non-existent levels of help and support. Who can you call if your account with the service suddenly gets suspended? Who can you contact if a document suddenly looks corrupted?
  2. You don’t control much of anything, including:
    1. how your data is used/not used
    2. how the data is protected and backed-up
    3. the policies and procedures the company follows to ensure the integrity and security of your data
    4. when the service is available, how long the service is guaranteed to be available, or if you’ll have advance warning when the service will not be available
    5. how stable the company running the service is; if the company goes belly-up, what happens to all of your stuff on their servers? Will you have the opportunity and capability to migrate your data somewhere else?
  3. Your data is potentially more at risk. This is related to the previous point. Let’s assume the company storing your data is doing everything right in terms of protecting, securing, and backing up your data, and, just as important, enforcing smart policies for its users concerning password strength, changing passwords, and so on. If I were a hacker, the cloud computing outfits might still be a very attractive target due to the sheer amount of data that I’d be able to access.

Mitigating the ugly: ways to minimize the risks

  1. Know what the risks are. This post should give you a head start. Would Iย  store personal financial data in the cloud? Maybe not. And for University employees collaborating in the cloud, read up on Protection of Sensitive Institutional and Personal Data.
  2. Have a backup and emergency plan. Just as the government reminds us to have spare water, food, and a pre-set meeting place set up in case of an emergency, you should also have a backup plan in case you can’t access your data in the cloud. Make regular backups of your data and think through what you’d do if Gmail were down for a week (hmm, might be good to have a backup email account, and make sure you have a backup of your contacts).

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