Data In The Cloud: Cloud 9 or Plan 9?

Cloud computing is clearly not where we want it to be.

On the one hand, we have folks actively trumpeting the benefits and utilitarian nature of cloud computing and data storage.  It’s attractive for sure.  Access data anywhere.  Avoid the hassles of local backups.  Prevent data recovery disasters.  Pay-for-what-you-eat models.  Unlimited computing potential.  It’s all sounds great on a blog.  Clearly the proponents want us to think Cloud computing is exactly like living on “Cloud Nine“.

The reality is still more hype than help to most of us.  Mostly early adopters are using it today.  There are steep learning curves to use the APIs.  Costs of usage and storage are decreasing, but are far from the “zero cost” models touted.  Nightmarish security issues arise when you don’t know where your data lives.  And people are losing control of their data.  That brings me to today’s Google infraction.

Google Docs is the classic example of storing data in the cloud and it’s proving to be somewhat unreliable and unpredictable.  Not exactly what you’d want to hear when you are storing away personal and important information.  Here’s a small list of documents that have been recently rejected with “inappropriate content” messages from Google:

Some of these issues have lingered for over a month, and still have no resolution or response from Google.  Some are brand new.  Either way, how can you feel good about your data in Google Docs?  And if the one of the largest cloud computing advocate-providers can’t get it right, who can? Do you really want to play guesswork with important information like that?  That’s just insane.

From Google’s own Terms of Service:

– 8.3 Google reserves the right (but shall have no obligation) to pre-screen, review, flag, filter, modify, refuse or remove any or all Content from any Service.

I understand the intent of this statement.  Google probably doesn’t want the liability of Al Qaeda using the Cloud to do predictive modeling for their next attack.  Or to storing documents spewing anti-Semitic hate speech.   But the reality of what they’re protecting is a bit more utilitarian and ugly:  copyrights.  There’s nothing worse than the MPAA or RIAA coming after you because you posted some content they own the copyrights to and you’re using without their permission.  This is a CYA move by Google for sure.

But what about my daughter’s homework?  If her upload somehow violates a magic filter, completely obscured from public scrutiny during upload and Google prevents her from accessing it, does she get to claim that the Cloud Ate Her Homework?  Never have Microsoft Word, a local hard drive and laptop in her room looked so attractive for safety and security.  Precisely the opposite of what the cloud says.

Are we getting this level of (dis)service because Google is tired of providing things for free now?  Are they going to force us to pay for the data we already put into the cloud?

Google’s entire history is about creating useful applications (GMail, GTalk, Wave, Google Docs) that are free to use, and allowing those that wish, premium features for a modest upgrade.  I don’t think it’s too much to ask that basic reliability (Google saves my documents and keeps them safe) and predictability (Google gives me access to them next time, or at least tells me why I can’t see them) are part of the “free service”, within some reasonable limits of storage.  If I have to pay just to ensure that Google will store a simple document in the first place, and not lose, modify or reject the content, that model really fails the general public and breaks with Google history to date.

Bela Lugosi as DataCenter Manager...Scary!
Ed Wood as DataCenter Manager...Scary!

As long as the cloud can freely mess with my information without my consent, “Cloud 9” computing sounds more like “Plan 9 from Outer Space” and I doubt I’d want Ed Wood in charge of my family spreadsheets.