Cloud computing has been much in the news of late, with Steve Jobs’ announcement the other day adding a little exclamation point. The excitement is approaching giddiness. At the risk of raining on the parade, I thought I’d do a few posts on some of the downsides of cloud computing.
First, let me explain my attention-getting, but slightly misleading title. The similarities between cloud computing and the 70s and early 80s mainframe model are many:
- Most of the number-crunching is done at a central location
- Most of the programming, configuration, updating, administration, and maintenance is done by experts with whom the users hardly ever interact
- The central facility services many users
- The business model relies on subscription, rental, or lease rather than purchase.
There are also some differences:
- Most business (as opposed to scientific) mainframes had one or two processors. Cloud computing data centers have thousands.
- Cloud computing data centers use air cooling for the most part. I think this is a mistake; from an efficiency point of view water cooling can be much better.
- The instruction set of the computers in the data centers is pretty much the same as that of the users’ hardware; in the mainframe era they were wildly different.
- Much of the information that flows back and forth between the users’ equipment and the cloud facilities does so over standard protocols, even if they often have odd proprietary twists. In the mainframe era, many of the protocols were wholly proprietary (but sometimes reverse-engineered and emulated, as in the case of the IBM 3270 terminal).
- The Internet has introduced great flexibility in the physical locations of both users and central facilities; mainframe wide-area networks were essentially private, and changes were not easy or simple.
The cloud computing model offers significant advantages. It frees users from installing new software, which is beginning to seem like an almost constant task in the era of Internet program updates. It offers the promise that technical difficulties can be resolved by experts with no involvement of the user at all, an immense boon now that tech support has been mostly off shored and most tech support “engineers” reduced to reading scripts. There is the promise that oft-ignored maintenance tasks like backup will be performed with discipline and dispatch.
However, there are risks associated with cloud computing. I’ll be examining some of them in the next few posts. It what’s to come, I’m assuming that most of the people reading this blog care about cloud computing in a personal or small business context. The situation for large businesses is more complex. Fortunately for them, they have large IT staffs to do sophisticated risk analysis, and don’t need me to do it for them.
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