A Relevant Issue With Cloud Computers

Cory Doctorow points it out in a tweet:

A cloud computer is just like a regular computer, except you have to ask permission from the phone company every time you use it.

And this is why even though I’d be interested in playing with Google’s Cr-48 computer with the Chrome OS, at the end of the day there’s a lot of computing capability I’m going to want to keep native to my own computer. In the case of Google and its OS, there is or will be apparently some capability to work offline (the computer will sync with at least some its cloud components when it reestablished contact), but then the question will be how many of its components will do so, and how many of them won’t. A computer that doesn’t work how I want it to when I want it to isn’t a computer I’m actually going to want.

In addition to the point Cory mentions, I would add another, which is that in the United States, the 4th Amendment status of content saved “in the cloud” still appears to be ambiguous, notwithstanding this week’s 6th Circuit Court ruling regarding e-mail on service provider servers. I’m not fomenting treason or such, but even so, I’d still like my government to need a warrant if it suspects I am, rather than going to my cloud service provider and leaning on them to use its Terms of Service to short-circuit those rights.

Bear in mind I’m sort of talking out of both sides of my mouth to some extent, since in fact I use GMail to access my personal mail account, and a copy of my mail gets stored there, and I also use Google Docs on a weekly basis to write my Filmcritic.com column, for no other reason than it seemed like a good idea at the time, and now I keep doing it. I’m already partially in the cloud. But the difference, I suppose, is that I poke my head into the cloud when I want to, not because it’s the only option. And that’s still a substantial thing for me.


40 thoughts on “A Relevant Issue With Cloud Computers

  1. It’s for reasons similar to this that I’m somewhat hesitant to jump whole-hog into the cloud. I’ve used GoogleDocs and GMail and other webmail apps and so on, but (except in the case of e-mail) I prefer native apps. Partly, I think, it’s because I have this irrational fear of an inability to access my data because of some glitch in the cloud. Even so, I feel it’s safer, and more robust in the long-run, to store and run everything locally, and use the cloud for backup and portability purposes – if I can store locally and upload to the cloud, then I feel my data is safer and more accessible to me.

  2. Sometimes I say “Hey as long as I don’t do anything illegal or treasonous then I don’t have to worry” but then I think of crap that comes out of the mouths of peoples like Glen Beck and Rand Paul and think “Holy shit, I just said the words illegal and treasonous and there for,,, I have probably just been tagged”.
    There’s no help for it dude. A good enough hacker can tap into anything. Using The Cloud doesn’t really make it harder or easier for them at the end of the day.
    How’s that for positive thinking; Positively scary. Time to put on some Jack Johnson, some Israel Kamakawiwo╩╗ole and sit out on the porch with the gun waiting for the men in black suits.
    Do you have any badgers I can borrow?

  3. All the cloud is, is a series of virtual machines that run on larger smaller computers. Users just get a piece of it. You can download free virtual machine software to test it out on your computer. VMWare Server is one. It lets you run another operating system on your OS (note anything you will buy will be better than the free stuff).

    There is nothing fancy about it at all. Basically computer servers are the point where they do alot more than 1 person needs. Google things they know alot about building servers. So they take alot of servers, cram them together, and give you a piece to use.

    Its not as fancy or sci-fi as cloud makes it out to be. Your data is still saved to a file on a hard drive (though it is several hard drives in case one fails).

    That being said, I have no interest in buying into cloud computing for what I need. I think google is going to target small business and try to sell it to them cheaper than it is for them to buy and maintain their own PCs. People at work often have limited uses for their PCs.

  4. Doesn’t Doctorow also take the rather strong open source objection that unless you have access to the source code you don’t have any freedom whatsoever anyway (even though a highly competent coder could insert obfuscated backdoor code (ala the theoretical issues that came up this week with the BSD stack?))

    An easier objection to make is “why should we trust provider X (in this case Google) to be altruistic?” – as Google seems to be giving away useful stuff for free, when in actuality they are trading useful stuff from them (an OS) for stuff that they find useful from us (ongoing data that is uniquely personal to us). Microsoft wants a buck, so they charge for their OS. Google wants something else, which is why they give their OS away for free (though they seem to be happy to push the idea that they are just all about the free candy when if you look at them as a company, they are adroit at extracting value)

  5. I’m typing this on one of the aforementioned Cr-48s right now. One thing that would go a long way toward me using more heavily would be a 1-click way that I could periodically download all my personal files that I have uploaded to the various cloud services to a flash drive.

    I haven’t tried the Cloud printing yet (probably this afternoon), so I’m holding my judgement, but I prefer being able to connect directly to a printer if needed.

    Even with all that, I think this will be my permanent to-go system

    I already have a 10″ netbook, and I had stopped using it because the screen is just a little too small. The 12″ screen with the SSD drive hits that sweet spot for me between feeling too cramped and having a device that’s a pain to lug around.

    Otherwise, I really love it right now. I’m actually at the mechanic’s getting my car serviced, and I’m really enjoying using it. I’m keeping up with my email, working on a meeting agenda, following my twitter stream and watching with detached amusement a Famous Internet Flameware ™ evolve

    Yes, I do have concerns about being beholden to having a connection to the cloud available for certain things, which is why my 17″ desktop-replacement beast will still be my day-to-day system. In addition to the privacy, data access and security issues, there are just still numerous things a cloud-only device just isn’t suitable. For instance, until I have something as powerful as Adobe Premiere or Photoshop in the cloud, I’ll still be using it. Yes, I know there are sorta-web equivalents, but I still don’t think we’ve reached the point where Avatar 2 will be completely post-produced at ReallyHighEndVideoEditing.com.

    That said, I think there is a significant segment for this type of system – it’s fast (the 7-second boot thing is no joke – I don’t have time to breathe before everything’s loaded), no bloatware, quiet (love ya, SSD!), it’s very light and has a very nice, tactile keyboard (no Windows logo anywhere! :) ).

  6. A couple of years ago I had some problems with Micro$oft Excell, and a friend suggested I try Google Docs. He said it works better, and since the program exists on the web and not in your computer, you are always using the newest version and don’t have to mess with updates, etc. I looked into it, and decided NO WAY.

    My stuff gets processed and stored on my computer. If that makes me excessively anal, so be it. Privacy may not be guaranteed this way, but lack of privacy is absolutely guaranteed if I turn everything over to Google.

  7. Of course, Google will not poke around inside everything you do correct……?
    Like Apple, Google has its’ own hoard of lemmings who will line up to have one of these things.
    Perfect examples of two companies who have marketed themselves so well in the “hip” department that people will overlook their evil and proprietary side.

  8. One thing I have noted: occasionally, things stored in the cloud become inaccessible. The past couple of weeks, here at the library we have had people try to print out things stored in GoogleDocs, only to find that for some reason or another they couldn’t. You still need an interface that meshes successfully with the cloud. I prefer to keep as much of that as possible under my local control, rather than have it be at someone else’s discretion.

  9. I applied to be a test user for the CR-48 (even though I am a full-on Linux user at home now), because I’m curious to see what the experience is like. I am cautiously optimistic about the future of cloud computing; I simply think that it still has some work to do.

    One problem the cloud boosters have is that the cost of hard drives is really quite low. You can get LOTS of storage space at a reasonable price. (Which also means you can get backup storage for low cost too). The only advantage the cloud has is for people who are constantly changing the computer where they do their work (frequent travelers, etc). For those of us who pretty much stay in one spot, not so much advantage as far as I can see.

    The concern about access to what should be YOUR data (both getting it and preventing OTHERS from getting to it) is real, and I share the concern.

  10. More importantly is the issue of ownership. With many online services, content you create is technically the property of the service you created it with or store it on, and they can do what they please with it. I just can’t get behind that!

    On this occasions, I try to keep in mind the saying “You get what you pay for.”

  11. It’s a mixed bag. First, the respectable cloud computing firms are going to encrypt your data both while moving from your machine to their and while stored at their end. Check the terms of service for DropBox and others – they all promise AES-256 encryption, which is industry standard for now. So, in theory, that sort of company cannot mine your data for fun and profit.

    On the other hand, Google’s free services DO NOT encrypt data on their servers. And they don’t make any bones about it. It’s free because they mine your data to fine-tune the ads they show you. In theory, then, they have full rights to do whatever they want in your data.

    Don’t forget too that the companies hosting it can pull the plug at any time. (See Amazon S3 and WikiLeaks.) And that powerful enough entities can always get to your data if they want it bad enough (see Anonymous and their many web hacks, see also alleged Chinese hacks of Google and others). Now, if your data is encrypted in the cloud, then their ability to open up and see your data is MUCH harder. Unless they guess/brute force your password, in which case, meh, tough luck.

    But then again, paranoid storage of your data on your own computer isn’t 100% secure, either. Unless that data is stored on a computer that is never attached to any other network or storage device. Ever. And is held in a secure bunker safe from theft. (Back in the days of Windows NT, that was the only way Microsoft would/could ensure a secure system: no network connections and no physical access to the machine.)

    So the questions about cloud computing and cloud storage revolve around how paranoid you are, how much damage the loss of that data could do to you/your business, and so on. Like economics and their supply vs demand graphs, you must come up with a paranoia vs usability graph: the more secure your system becomes, the more difficult it is to use that system.

  12. @Steve Halter: I know, right? I’m thinking to myself, hey, the new plan is the old plan. We’re even doing it where I work with something called VDI – which is really just dumb terminals attached to a main frame. A little prettier. A little flashier. Same old thing.

  13. MrClock:

    With many online services, content you create is technically the property of the service you created it with

    Really? That’s not true for Google Docs, or for Yahoo! Services!, or Amazon’s EC2 computing services, or iCloud, or Dropbox, or anything else I’ve ever looked at using. You have to agree to let them store your information and deliver it to you (or other people, for sharing services), and often to let them look at it, but not to give up any ownership.

  14. @critter42 – I’m curious. Would you *pay* for that cr48? Would you pay as much as an equivalent laptop (same basic hardware, but with a local OS?

    For me, it’s that there’s nothing I can do with a CR48 or same that I can’t do with my laptop. Plus, with my laptop, I can do local things *too*. All it does is take away capabilities.

    @11 – you’re incorrect about ownership. Most cloud services require you to give them the legal right to display your content to people with whom you’ve asked to share that content. However they don’t own your content. This is a shockingly common misconception.

  15. There’s no reason you can’t run cloud applications on your own hardware. My webmail provider lives in an Atom box under my desk. I also use dropbox… to store encrypted blobs of critical backups in case of catastrophic failure.

  16. We will sell our souls for convenience and safety. I used to think that this would not happen this fast. That it would be far slower and less obvious and it would our grandchildren’s children, the ones who never knew a different life that would be fully linked and controlled to the government, corporations or whatever.

    But now I think it will happen in my lifetime. Cloud computing will happen. Security will get stricter and protests will become fewer and fewer. Because in the end, humans are lazy, fearful and selfish.

    I don’t know that it is definitely a dystopian society that this leads to. We assume it will be. But after all, it might be just boring,

  17. My unresearched objection to the cloud computing concept is that it seems to be implicitly assuming a bandwidth utopia. Which like all utopias doesn’t exist, at least not for most people.

    If everything thing I do has to go to and from the cloud, then if the local data pipes are clogged up and slow then everything is slowed down far more than if I just download the data, process it on my machine and upload it.

    If there is plenty of bandwidth and never any network congestion anywhere between me and the cloud systems, it’s not a problem. But no network I have ever been on is like that.

    This sounds to me like a great way to make everything you do on your computer like the streaming videos where a 3 minute video comes in 36 pieces 5 seconds long, with a 2-10 second gap between each piece. No thanks.

    [Longer unresearched rant about steaming video omitted.]

    (By “unresearched” I mean someone knowledgeable is about to post about how I am completely wrong about the nature of bandwidth, cloud computing, and streaming video.)

  18. @19: completely wrong about the nature of bandwidth, cloud computing, and streaming video

    Well, partly wrong. The bandwidth limit is why the most popular applications are mail, which by definition starts off not on your computer; collaborative editing, which has to involve sending things to and fro; and synchronization for people with multiple computers.

    If it’s just your own stuff on your own computer there’s much less advantage, and it’s just a question of whether the bandwidth plus the security concerns outweighs the advantage of having someone else do backups. Personally, I prefer the local cloud compromise for backups, like rickg, though in my case it’s a Time Capsule.

  19. I’m pretty much in agreement with all the objections raised here:

    * Depending on cloud services means giving up ultimate control over your data. You are putting your faith in the quality of the sysadmins of the people running the cloud service – both their administration skills and their integrity in handling your data. For many – perhaps even most – home users, this might actually be a reasonable trade, at least for some data; there are a lot of average users who simply just won’t or can’t handle things like backups and security updates. But it’s not a trade I’m willing to make; there have been too many cases of bad administration skills (remember the Sidekick data issue, for a recent example?), and I frankly don’t trust the integrity of service companies any more than I absolutely have to. (It still boggles me that people are willing to use websites like Mint where you have to give the service company all of your personal financial data. Banks, credit card and investment sites I more or less trust, since they have that financial data anyway; but giving it to a third party to store on their servers?) Which kind of leads into my second point…

    * Free services aren’t. It costs money to provide them, even if it’s just bandwidth and administration; people aren’t going to do that without an ulterior motive. It may be something benign, like “We want to see that everyone has access to email”; it may be something relatively neutral, like “We are going to use voice samples from our free 411 directory assistance program to improve our voice recognition”; it may be a promotional technique for other for-pay services they run; or it may be something like “We are going to mine your data for targeted advertising (or other less-savory purposes).” If you use a free service, you’d better be OK with the ulterior motive! And if that motive goes away, it’s quite possible the provider will shut down the service – there have been several examples over the last few years, but the one that sticks in my mind is Google discontinuing the 411 service because they had collected all the voice samples they needed and didn’t want to pay the expense of hosting any longer.

    * You can’t rely on network connectivity. Maybe, in the future, there will be universal world-wide connectivity with the speed and capacity to handle anything you throw at it, with coverage to match, and a reasonable enough price to be a background utility; but it isn’t there now, and I don’t see it happening any time in the near or even mid-term future. Cellular data has come much further, much faster, than I would have guessed 5 years ago, but it still has a long way to go – and has even backslid recently, as cellular data networks have become swamped and carriers have started dropping unlimited plans for data caps.

  20. Hmn, thanks for the link on the 6th Circuit Court ruling – that I missed on the first go-’round.

    Just a few years before I opened my bookstore, I headed up a project to stress-test a system (technically several different bits of interlocking software) on a Sunfire ™ testbed. I got to authorise enough boards to make the testbed match ops in terms of CPUs. It taught me some lessons – a) the pendulum does indeed go back-and-forth between desktop horsepower and server horsepower, and woe betide you if your network isn’t up to the firehose of data throughput; and b) someone ELSE on your big, honking server can still take away your cycles even if you’ve set your task priority high.

    I’m not sure our (read American) network infrastructure is up to this cloud computing concept. Then again, maybe this is why Google is trying to push fiber projects in the cities.

    But! All the network monitoring systems *I* was seeing back in 2007 were, in my humble opinion, unable to really track what the flux was hanging up on and where. Tea leaves would have been easier to read. Maybe, hopefully, things have changed since then —- so when you complain your desktop response is slow, they can actually tell you WHY.

    Meanwhile, I’m happy running the bookstore with my Macs.

    PS In the bad old days, astronomers took their data (tapes and plates and sketches) away with them down from the mountain and stuffed them in their offices to work on – the data was ‘Mine, mine, all mine.’ Now they get grants from NSF and NASA and a copy of the data gets stored in archives — and the observer get 12 months to publish before the data goes Public. In many ways, this has forced a revolution in both faster publishing and in more empirical-style work on HUGE chunks of data. That proprietary data period (12 months) is really heavily defended, though.

  21. My apologies for the double post – my point with the Yahoo news item was Delicious is a cloud-based service.

  22. For me, it’s simple. I run a business. Said business involves me handling (editing) other people’s copyrighted material. Therefore, that material should not be stored on a computer that I do not own. Period, end of discussion, and the reason why I don’t use Gmail, Yahoo-mail, or any other distributed mail to run my business. Of course, this doesn’t stop the authors from sending their copyrighted manuscript to me through Gmail, or Dropbox, or whatever other service, even when the publisher has provided FTP servers that they own for precisely that purpose. I’m just hanging out over here in my personal space that looks like “responsible security” to me, and “paranoia” to everybody outside.

  23. Some time AFTER the day when I can reliably have a phone conversation in a major first world city with my cell phone, or receive SMS in the order they were sent, I will THINK about cloud computing.

    Right now, if I go into a rural area or heaven forbid another country, I will have no access or promise the income from the next seven generations to pay for the access.

    Oh and Google, being Google, if I happen to connect to the cloud in another country then they will change all the UI to another language. Because that’s what they do today when I connect with a laptop or smart phone.

  24. Two thoughts:

    -Cloud computing and the seeming looming supremacy of per gig 4g (or whatever) connectivity fees (really just a backdoor anti-Net Neutrality coup de gras), to me seems like a baaaad combination. I’ll keep my programs running on a machine I don’t have to pay rent for thank you very much…

    -Memory and processing power is so cheap and sufficient to most peoples’ needs, I don’t see cloud apps catching on, only cloud backup. Of course it could just be the limit of my imagination. I could also see cloud computing being fantastic for the future of cheap, disposable, printed on paper or plastic computers of the future, cache memory and an antenna for connectivity (laser printed on a makerbot-special), and you’ve got yourself a great cloud computer.

  25. Just got my Cr-48. I’m not too worried about my data in the cloud being inaccessible, mainly because I don’t use things like Google Docs, and besides there’s no data of mine out there that I don’t have a copy of on a conventional computer.

    It’s a nice Web terminal, but that’s about as far as it goes.

  26. A regular computer is just like a cloud computer, except you can kid yourself that there are no avenues where someone else has to grant you permission before you can use it.

  27. Kevin – Same question to you that I posed to critter42. Would you pay for a CR-48? Say netbook prices?

    Brian Mac – not only paranoid, but somewhat misinformed. Any email bounces though multiple email servers, not just the hosted email services. Unless you want to have people send you a CD, there’s no way to work in the modern world and not have a file being sent back and forth touched by parties other than the sender and recipient. Dropbox is probably more secure than most FTP implementations. But have fun with the tinfoil hat. :)

  28. Right now, no, because we just bought an Acer Aspire 1410 last year, which is an 11.6″ laptop with a Celeron SU2300 processor. I could never justify the purchase to myself, even at netbook prices, and especially not with having a 1-year-old kid.

    If I didn’t have that wonderful little Acer, it’d be significantly more tempting, especially at the ~$300 price point; that price is probably unrealistic on account of the Cr-48′s 12.1″ screen. The Acer’s main use to me is Internet, since I can’t game on a touchpad worth a damn, so this Cr-48 is actually a pretty good replacement. About the only thing I really miss so far is being able to mount a remote filesystem to access my music collection.

    Once the bugs are ironed out, it’d be a decent little machine to give to one’s grandparents who only need a way to get on the Internet, or as a second or third computer to be an Internet terminal.

  29. @rickg: I am, of course, aware that any e-mail passes through multiple companies’ servers on the way to me. However, I do not choose to permanently store that material on anybody else’s servers, and that’s the best I can do right now.

  30. With the incredibly current and increasing cheapness (in dollar terms) of computer hardware, and my own paranoid need to put three different copies of even the most remotely important document in three separate secure areas (hard drive, back-up hard drive, thumb drive, email sent to self. Heck, I even do hard copies in file boxes and fireproof safe for some) I really don’t get the push for putting everything “in the cloud”.

    I may be old fashioned, but I think for important stuff having it in one place is important because all systems fail. Even the cloud system which was formally believed to be fail safe and secure.

    I realize that’s mostly for cloud storage, but even for cloud computing it holds. What if their system is down when you need to finish that Regression Report on housing prices in rural Montana? Or what if you are in rural Montana and they don’t have secure access to the internet?

    The eagerness for people to jump on the “next new thing” technologically speaking is understandable, I do it myself; the tendency to believe that we can just get rid of all the old systems completely is not.

  31. Cloud computing is just the old mainframe model. Store your data and run your apps on a distant machine owned & controlled by unreachable high priests.

    We spent 40 years getting away from that model of computing. As the android Ruk said in the Star Trek episode “What are little girls made of?” We had cleansed ourselves — now you bring the evil back!

  32. I’m hoping the legal issues will all be settled in my favour once it’s feasable for me to move 60Gb/S anywhere on the planet. Come to that, I swear at gigabit LAN speeds. ~6Mb/frame, 20-odd layers of frames for an effects shot, 30fps…. gonna be a lllooonnnngg time before I’m using the Cloud for anything more substantial than email. Even that I’m a bit weird about as so many of our beloved leaders seem so interested in keeping us safe from the Constitution. Terrorists. I meant keeping us safe from teh Terrorists.

  33. Didnt Will Smith show us in I Robot the problem with centralization?
    you pay for the droid but it is controlled by some central entity?
    its like buying your way into serfdom or something.
    buy a true raid machine or two, set up some kind of remote access if you need it, and be lord of your own domain.

  34. @rickg
    After using it some more and comparing it with how I used my netbook (Dell Mini 10) – browsing, email, light office suite work, watching the odd video, I would have to say yes, I would pay for it. It is really nice to work with on the go – the instant on/instant off is a pleasure, it’s nice and light, the keys feel great and as I noted earlier, the screen size is just about perfect. I use it a lot more than the Mini, so I think a certain little Dell will be hitting ebay soon. Since I spend 90% of my time online with Google Chrome maximized anyway, I’m not as off-put by being restricted to the “browser”. However, there is a hidden terminal (technically two) if I need to scratch that command-line itch. The only thing I would like is a wallpaper option – true, it has “themes”, but they’re just not as nice/friendly as a simple wallpaper.

  35. @Greg
    And what good is that domain of yours if it cannot connect with anything else? The truth is that we are already reliant on third parties to connect us to the world.
    Honestly I am hoping someone (The Document Foundation?) ports something like Open/LibreOffice to a cloud app, so that the fears for a huge Big Brother company will dissipate and people will judge web/clous apps for what they are.

  36. It is imperative that Google needs to come out with a version of Google Docs which will be resident on the device and can work without being connected to the Cloud.

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