The Cloud — benefits & risks

The cloud has changed everything from how we write a paper, to how we consume products, to how we develop software. The impact that cloud has had on the lives of every person is massive. And yet, most people really do not get what the cloud is, the implications of its existence, or the risks and benefits of using the cloud. So, let me start by explaining what the cloud really is: The cloud is just a lot of computers in large room/rooms called a data center. Emphasis on the “large”, the largest data center is 6.3 million square feet (~ 110 football fields). We connect to these computers using the the internet. Just like our monitor can shows us things that a desktop computer next to it tells it to, it can also show us things that are on these remote machines via the internet. With this understanding of the cloud, now consider the implications of the cloud, and the risks and benefits of using the cloud:

As a Consumer:

As a consumer of the cloud, I use it for three primary things: I use it to backup, I use it to collaborate, and I use it to access my documents across a range of devices. The cloud is an extremely convenient way to achieve all of these means.

With this convenience comes a tradeoff — data exposure and vulnerability. The main ethical concern with the cloud is actual a concern of data. The cloud provides a means for cloud providers to obtain users data at the benefit (& and potentially cost) of their users. When we use cloud solutions we are giving a piece of ourselves to the company, our data. In this way we make ourselves vulnerable to the motives of that company. With companies thirst for data growing, alternatives to cloud storage are becoming more inconvenient and limiting. As this article notes, Apple no longer involves syncing via tethering, making syncing via Cloud the only option. Companies are forcing us to give our data to the cloud in order to take full advantage of their services. Beyond this ethical concern there is also the concern about the ability of the company to keep our data safe and available to us. We have to trust that the cloud companies have the means to keep our data safe.

So, as I mentioned, as a consumer, I use the cloud to backup, I use it to collaborate, and I use it to access my documents across a range of devices. The cloud is not the only way to ahchieve these means, there are alternatives. I could achieve these goals without having to expose my data to the cloud. I could use an external hard drive to backup data, I could collaborate with others on one desktop machine, I could sync my files by tethering (& not using apple products). These are all hard and they take time though. Thus, in the tradeoff between convenience and the data vulnerability- I choose convenience. I leave my data at the whim of my cloud provider for the sake of convenience.

As a Developer:

I want to talk about the benefits of the cloud in terms of my aspirations to be an entrepreneurial developer in the tech industry. I want to make a company, and the implications that the public cloud has on my ability to do so are huge. How the public cloud works is, Public clouds such as Amazon web services and Microsoft Azure are used by small/ medium companies like pinterest, Pinterest pays Amazon web services by the hour to rent computers in their data center. In short, the benefits of companies using the public cloud as noted in this article are: pay as you use scalability, no upfront cost, and infinite capacity on demand. I will explain these benefits more practically, in the term of Pintrest. This means that when Pinterest started it did not have to go and buy a bunch of servers to run on (no upfront cost). When Pinterest grew from 1000 to 100000 users it did not have to go out and buy a bunch more servers (infinite capacity on demand ). And finally, when pinterest has an increased website traffic one day because people feel like getting there pin on, they can get those machines on demand, and only pay for the machines when they are using them (pay as you use scalability). It is the existence of the public cloud that allows so many small/ medium sized companies to get off their feet and scale up and down easily. Thus, the public cloud has lowered the barriers of entry for small businesses to enter and thrive in the market significantly. As a developer who wants to make a company some day, these benefits of the public cloud are exciting.

However, the implications and use cases of the cloud as developers are not all so great. It also is serving as a mode for companies to make more proprietary software under the guise of the buzzword “SaaS (Software as a Service)”. Richard Stallman explains the pitfalls of SaaS in his article Who Does the Server Really Server? . He coins the renaming of SaaS to SaaSS (Service as a Software Substitute) to show it in a less flattering light. He explains: “Service as a Software Substitute (SaaSS) means using a service as a substitute for running your copy of a program. Concretely, it means that someone sets up a network server that does certain computing tasks — for instance, modifying a photo, translating text into another language, etc. — then invites users to do computing via that server. Stallman notes that the SaaS is like proprietary software in that it gives server operator unjust power over the user.” He points out that it acts like proprietary software in that it limits the four essential freedoms that free software enables: “(0) to run the program as you wish, (1) to study and change the source code so it does what you wish, (2) to redistribute exact copies, and (3) to redistribute copies of your modified versions”. As a developer, Richard’s article made me reconsider the benefits and the underlying implications of SaaS, and thus the cloud model of development.