Friday, August 5, 2011

Clouded Thoughts

Steve Jobs has talked about keeping a lot of your next computer's software and storage "in the cloud."  Amazon offers five gigabytes of free "cloud drive" storage.  Five gigs isn't a lot compared to some things, but it's a thousand songs, too.  Approximately the equivalent of 80 CDs, that's not chicken feed if you compress them to MP3 format.  Looked at another way, it's only 20 minutes of video, or just enough time to save a brief recording of chicken feeding.

Dig a little deeper into Amazon's "cloud drive" offerings and you find 1000 gigabytes - 1 terabyte (one million kilobytes for you old farts that remember when the standard 64k of memory was where "real" computers set themselves apart from the kiddie units) - costs $1000 per year.

You read that right.  One terabyte of storage, one kilodollar, one year.  What happens to your data if you don't pay up?  In an admittedly brief search, no word on what happens, but at a guess I'd say you can't access it.  Instead, you get a sternly-worded message saying your data is held hostage until you pony up.

Elsewhere on Amazon you can find a one terabyte hard drive, $80.  Instead of $83 per month, that's $80 one time and you own it.  No sternly worded messages at all.  I'm not seeing a lot of advantage here, but let's explore that a bit.

What's the single largest advantage?  Portability.  Anywhere there's a computer with a working web browser, you have access to your storage.  Log in and there it is, boom.  When you're done with whatever you're working on, save it, boom again.  Get back to the house or office and there it is, all the changes saved just like you left them.

You can achieve similar results with a USB drive.  You can't carry as much information on your person, USB drives only go up to about 32G, but really unless you're editing video on the run you don't need that much storage.  There's the obvious risk of losing the USB drive, but there's the risk of losing your cell phone, too - that doesn't stop anybody from putting their personal information on there, family phone numbers and addresses.  All very risky behavior, from a security standpoint.  But they do it.  I daresay a USB drive is even a little more secure, since it rides down in a pocket, not on a belt carrier.  Less likely to get dropped.  And mine is on my key ring.  In order to drop and lose it, I'd have to not hear it, and that's really unlikely.  I don't leave it behind when I go somewhere, since I can't leave without my car keys.  It's not a terrible system.  Perfect, of course not.  But how perfect is the "cloud?"

When's the last time you heard of this database or that network, supposedly a very secure one owned and administered by some large company, falling prey to hackers or other infiltrators?  Not that long ago, was it?  Sony, eggheads par excellence, got some serious egghead on their face when their Playstation user network was compromised.  You'd expect that Sony would be up to the task of keeping one of their big cash cows safe and secure, but no.  If they can't do it, how safe is your data at Amazon?

If you answered, "no safer than at home," bingo.  You won the booby prize.  No location is completely safe, no storage is completely impermeable.  It appears the hackers are slightly more imaginative than the security purveyors.  Maybe there's just more of them.  Whatever the case, your data can be found.  The beauty of the external drive sitting on your desk is that you can unhook it, physically separate it from the rest of the world.  That's old-school wireless as in "off the grid," and it is absolutely 100% proof against hackers.  If they want at your data, they have to come to your house and get it.

Sorry.  My half-witted novel drafts just aren't worth the risk.  Do I have a pit bull terrier?  A Taurus Judge? A battered Louisville Slugger?  Any hacker worth his password crackers knows better than to find out the hard way.  So I unplug and relax.  My unassuming home and unassuming town are better security than any software I might load onto the computer.  Can't sneak a peek at a DVD that isn't in the drive, can't dig through files on a hard drive that isn't hooked up to the 'net.  Can't be done.  It might as well not be there.

If a hacker looks through your data stored in Amazon's "Cloud Drive," will you even know?  My security program keeps a sniffer going all the time, it'll probably put up some kind of alarm if it detects something, but would I get such a notice from Amazon?  Hard to say.

Where is this cloud?  The concept delivers software as a service, rather than you owning an issue of the software and using that on your own equipment.  So what your little tablet computer is, is essentially an input/output terminal.  The computing hardware isn't in your computer anymore, but somewhere else.  There are efficiencies to be exploited there, a typical tablet computer simply isn't big enough to carry much computational horsepower, but when all it has to be is a display and keyboard, then that's really all most people want.  I think this is speaking more to what most users really want in a computer: they want to have used the computer.

I found a video by a guy named David S. Platt, and he wrapped up the video with this one great truism.  "People don't want to use your software.  They want to have used your software."  In other words, what people want are results, not processes.  Typical users aren't interested in having a computer, they're interested in having what the computer does.  That's a completely different thing.

In effect, they want a TV that does more than just project shows, they want one that also picks up newspapers, does word processing, spreadsheets and video telephony.  In short, they want all the functions of the computer and don't care two hoots about how it happens.  For these people, cloud computing is perfect.

For the rest of us, who store our thoughts and release them in a measured way, who plan and daydream and philosophize, the cloud is rather too nebulous, diaphanous, insecure.  I'm not ready to release this blog post yet, so I'll retain it until 1:00am tomorrow morning, thankyouverymuch.  No hackers need interfere.  My Great American Novel which I will never finish writing must languish without electronic sneak thieves getting their grubby mitts on it.

I don't mind using the computer.  I enjoy shifting my car by hand, making my own sandwich and knowing exactly which piece of software I'm going to use next.  I don't mind being actively involved in the processes of my day-to-day activities.

I don't want the cloud.

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