Clouds, Trust and Security

Recently we’ve had two major issues with online networks. One was the large number of services that depend on Amazon’s cloud facilities, which went down for a number of days. The second was the Sony PSP gaming network which was badly hacked and was down for even longer, and more importantly seems to have leaked users personal data and possibly credit card details – although the truth of this still somewhat uncertain.

These aren’t the only ones, just the most high profile. There’s been problems in the last year with Hotmail, Gmail and Google Analytics amongst others.

Personally I’m not a fan of cloud computing – I simply don’t trust commercial systems driven by costs to be reliable enough or secure enough, but I had felt that I was a loan voice in the wilderness and having started this post a few days ago I was wondering whether to bother finishing it when I received the latest edition of Windows Secrets newsletter (highly recommended) and read an article by Woody Leonhard. Woody has long been a favourite author of mine, from the days when I ran the computer books dept at James Thin and seized on his early books on things like Word 6 macro programming. He has a robust and common sense approach that I find echoes my own and is above all practical. So it was a relief to find that he shares my doubts about the cloud.

It seems to me that the idea is being largely driven by accountants and supported by uninformed users who have become beguiled by file sharing services, online image galleries and webmail to believe that they don’t need to bother with security and file organisation. Of course most of them haven’t even heard of the file organisation tools on their systems and couldn’t tell you where their files are most of the time – Microsoft’s determined hiding of Windows Explorer and its increasingly awkward design in Vista and Windows 7 have contributed to the problem.  I’ve always found when training work colleague and friends that the best way to improve their understanding of and comfort with computers is to teach them basic file management and to display ALL file extensions.

Accountants with no concept of the technical issues surrounding network management and system security read advertising claims about cloud systems and only see vast savings in expert manpower and expensive hardware with no conception of the implications should anything go wrong. Only when the accident happens and there is an outage or data loss does the penny drop.

Any business that relies on other peoples’ networks cannot function when those networks are not available – with the resultant loss of sales, cash flow and customer loyalty.

Any business that leaves its data in the hands of someone else risks total disaster if that data is lost.

Call me an old fashioned Luddite but to me the only way that makes sense is to have your data on your machines, your emails on your servers and your local machines, and to have solid backup strategies in place. Likewise security – do you really believe that another company cares about your security and data privacy as much as you do? How about the taxman? If your accounts are in the cloud and they go poof! what do you think the Revenue will say about your responsibility to maintain your records? If your webmail system serves you targeted adverts in order to provide the “free” service do you really believe that your mail stays private?

So for me I’ll continue to use pop mail boxes with only occasional use of webmail *on my own servers*, rather than 3rd party mail systems whether Gmail or Hotmail or anything else. I’ll continue to hold my own files on my own machines and if I need to synch them I’ll do it when they are facing each other across my own network rather than across the cloud. And while services like Dropbox have some useful capabilities I’ll be very careful about what data ever crosses their threshold. My data – my responsibility. My clients’ data – my responsibility.

And when the next major outage or security fail happens Woody and I will still have our data intact.

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