2011-06-07

The Cloud Is Insane

This is a bit of an incoherant rant, sorry! I may polish some of these points off at some point for a blog post on pagekite.net. Or not!

Some days I feel like a fuddy duddy old dinosaur.

Other days, I feel like the entire tech industry is comprised of fashion crazed idiots.

It's the cloud hype which makes me feel this way.

I think the whole cloud computing concept is, in a word, insane.

By this, I mean Apple's and Google's and Amazon's and Facebook's shared dream of storing all our data, doing all our serious computing for us and demoting our personal computing devices so they become effectively nothing more than screens and keyboards with an Internet connection.

What they are gunning for, is nothing less than complete control over all our data, communication and expression. They want us to depend on them all the time, for everything we do. And pay. I understand why they might want that, as greedy corporations. There are gigantic amounts of money to be made through monopolization and control.

I just don't get why the entire industry has en masse agreed that this is somehow a good idea.

Unless the entire industry is just that greedy. Or gullible.

The benefits

Seriously, what does the cloud buy the consumer?

Here's the promise:

  1. Access your files, data and software, from any computer, anywhere!
  2. Let professionals run the systems, keep backups etc.
  3. Since it's online, computing becomes social, collaborative!
  4. Scaling up increases efficiency: it's greener!
  5. Scaling up increases efficiency: it's cheaper!

The fine print

Caveats to the benefits listed above:

  1. As long as you have Internet and they don't close your account.
  2. Unless they're run by idiots or criminals or sociopaths.
  3. You won't even notice when it's hacked, stolen, corrupted! But at least social features make it really hard to switch solutions - now you have to convince all your friends and coworkers to switch too.
  4. Consumers still have just as many computers using just as much electricity. Probably more. But datacenters are sprouting up overnight like mushrooms, sucking up electricity at fantastic rates.
  5. Maybe. Scaling up is hard work, it is far from obvious that it's really cheaper than distributing software the old fashioned way.

Remember that these companies have to make money. Letting idiots run things is cheaper. Closing your account is cheaper than figuring out whether you really broke the law or violated terms. Canceling unprofitable products is standard business practice. Security is expensive, sweeping problems under the rug is cheap. If anything has been revealed in the last few months of Anonymous hack attacks, it's that many online systems are indeed run by monkeys, and sometimes I get the feeling that the largest social network is run by a sociopath...

While I was at Google, point 4 was the biggest collective delusion within the company. Lots of the employees truly believe they were helping the environment, management fueled that illusion with awesome programs like google.org and RE<C. Maybe management even believed it, I dunno - and if RE<C succeeds, then I will be happy to have been proven wrong. But for now, cloud computing is a massive burden on the environment, there is no way around it.

(The final problem I have with the supposed benefits of cloud computing, is what I am working on with PageKite: the cloud is not the only way to make software more social and collaborative. You should be able to run a web-app on your own computer, and collaborate using that just as easily as you could if your data was in the cloud. The concept is called peer-to-peer and it's one of the core design principles of the Internet.)

Cost^H^H^Hentralization

At the end of the day, it seems the cloud pitch is largely focused on cost. People gloss over the problems and focus on the promise that the cloud will bring us more powerful computing tools at a lower price.

But is that even a realistic expectation?

Fundamentally, the cloud requires adding more machines. If your laptop or tablet or phone is just a dumb terminal (or browser), then every time you do something, there has to be a computer in the cloud to do the real work. You may share that computer with hundreds or thousands of others, but it is still an extra computer.

The cloud also requires constant Internet traffic. You must always be on-line to use the cloud. This implies constant network traffic, which in the end translates directly to electricity pumped into powering switches and routers and money to upgrade them. And of course your device is useless when the network is unavailable.

So, more computers and more network overhead, more electricity, for less availability. Where are savings?

It boils down to labour and efficiency. The idea is that by centralizing the work involved in running all this stuff, things can become more efficient and cheaper.

(Or more efficient and more powerful, which is actually more likely - efficiency almost never leads to savings, it just lets people Do More Stuff. So we'll get more computing power for our money, but I am pretty sure we won't actually spend any less.)

But this premise alone really should give people pause. We all know what centralization does: it leads to concentration of power, corruption, monopolies, single points of failure.

Centralization is bad. We know this. It may be more efficient, but the added efficiency is not worth downsides - as a society, we really only grudgingly accept centralization in one place: a democratic government.

Yet somehow, the cloud hype has made people forget this.

But back to cost...

Will the consumer really save money? Probably not. The consumer still needs a computer, and no matter how cheap the computer it is probably powerful enough to do most of the tasks solved by the cloud, if only the industry would let it - if only you could install the software.

But with the cloud you aren't given that option. The industry today seems completely focused on making your computer less useful, so you will pay the cloud to do the work instead.

And believe me, they do want you to pay.

And you will.

And I think it's insane.



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