The year 2011 featured the breakout for the once mysterious process of “cloud computing.” With Apple’s rollout of iCloud, Amazon’s release of the Kindle Fire and increasing proliferation of mobile devices and their apps, it’s clear that the cloud has gone mainstream. Despite this, there are two issues that remain at the forefront of the narrative about the cloud: its efficiency and reliability.
Efficiency has been a huge selling point for the cloud and for good reason. The purchase and sell of server space is a complicated game of expectations and balances. More than a few companies choose to overshoot their needs in exchange for “rainy day” server resources. As a result, most companies are paying for more server space than they need, up to 70 percent more by some accounts, which is not efficient in any sense.
Cloud computing provides efficiency on multiple fronts, and the four most salient methods of achieving that efficiency are dynamic provisioning, multi-tenancy, server utilization and datacenter efficiency. Full disclosure: this terminology was pulled from a 2010 study executed by Accenture and WSP Environment & Energy.
Dynamic provisioning is just fancy speak for scaling. Server capacity can be matched to ongoing demand, which virtually eliminates the possibility of sites crashing from traffic overload. If a website or application hosted in the cloud goes viral and racks up a million downloads overnight, the cloud can scale resources to facilitate those downloads rather than buckling under the weight of visitors and shutting down.
Multi-tenancy refers to shared hosting, wherein multiple clients occupy the same server. The idea is similar to an apartment building; if you’re sharing the resources of the server with other clients, it’s cheaper for everyone overall. This massive shared infrastructure allows for servers to be used at higher capacity, and that in turn means less wasted server space, less energy used and less money spent on powering unused hardware; in a word datacenter efficiency. Indeed, the argument for efficiency in the cloud may be the least refutable.
On the other hand, the issue of security has dogged the still-growing industry from the get-go. The concept of remotely storing information that is accessible to an unknown third party has many security analysts wringing their hands. Tied to the security of the cloud is its reliability. Sure, it can scale resources and save money and reduce carbon footprints, but if it fails just like every other server, what’s the difference? Considering the seismic shift toward cloud computing, if a server did go down, couldn’t it be a calamity?
Server reliability has always been an important component of information technology. If one is going to put massive amounts of information in one location, it is reasonable to expect that you can access that information at any time. When a server goes down or is attacked or even destroyed, whatever potentially sensitive information was stored there is put at risk or wiped out completely.
Part of the all-important scaling of resources inherent to cloud computing is a little word called “redundancy.” It’s not a new concept, but it plays an essential role here in keeping information available to the people who need to access it most. In the event that a cloud server does go down, multiple layers of redundancy are built in across the server infrastructure. Automated processes eliminate points of failure while keeping a route clear for users to either access their data or move the data to a different location.
As a technology that has come of age at a time when we need it most (the rampant growth of smartphone adoption and the growing popularity of the mobile Internet mean more data are being generated and more devices are being assigned to a single user), cloud computing plays a central role in the continued development of our Internet-centric lives. Security (or the lack thereof) has become the foremost consideration in terms of how often people on the Internet are thinking about their personal information.
In the wake of some high-profile security breaches (See: Amazon, Sony, Dropbox etc.) the idea of storing information on a remote server, or cloud, caused a considerable amount of handwringing in the community. Who are these faceless technicians who have access to unknown amounts of client storage? How reliable was a storage medium with so many lurking variables?
It’s true that the relationship between a cloud provider and user requires a certain amount of trust, but it’s the same trust that one would give to Amazon for a Prime membership. You are more likely to be the target of a phishing scam than to have the information stored in your cloud server hacked and manipulated. Sure, when it happens, we hear about it and in that way, cloud disasters are like plane crashes: very high profile but not very frequent. Those “faceless techs” are a more dependable security force than anything a small or medium business could pull together, bot to mention the fact that a cloud provider’s continued existence depends on them keeping the promise of protecting your information.
Sadly, the threat of security breaches is something that comes with life on the Internet. The commoditization of personal information has placed a high value on data, and there is very little information that is actually “safe.” Is storing your information in the cloud safer than storing it on a personal hard-drive? Well, it won’t be lost in a laptop bag or stolen from a library, but if Anonymous tried hard enough, they would probably be able to get to your slice of the cloud pie, though I assume you would have to have really important information for them to go after you.
Besides, just because we are shifting to the cloud doesn’t mean that physical storage is going away. Solid state hard drives are growing in capacity and shrinking in size, which makes them pretty ripe to be the next personal storage standard, while the cloud covers everything else, and that’s not a bad thing.
As with any relatively new technology, the limits of the cloud remain to be seen. For now, the cloud is the most efficient and most reliable option, but it will need to continue growing to stay that way. Time will only lead to more sophistication of the cloud, wider adoption and eventually a fleeting thought on some idle Tuesday in the future about how we ever got by without the cloud.