12 hard truths about cloud computing

Performance, security, cost -- here’s what to really expect from the cloud

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Cloud computing hard truth No. 10: No one knows which laws apply
It's easy to imagine that the cloud of data services is living off in some Shangri-La away from those pesky laws and rules that weigh down the lives of humans living on earth. The clouds are floating in cyber space, and we'd all like to believe that's a beautiful place filled with so much harmony and mutual respect that lawyers aren't needed.

This is sort of true because no one really knows what laws apply. It's possible that all the laws apply because the Web stretches everywhere. If you ask a cloud to give you the first instance available, you might end up being governed by Texas, Virginia, California, or wherever your bits happen to end up. What if your code runs in a Virginia server owned by Amazon, a company governed by the state of Washington and the city of Seattle? Are you under only the thumb of Virginia, or do the Seattle cops have a say? It could be all of the above!

Corporate lawyers are trying their best to create Acceptable Use policies that seem to focus on the really bad things people do, but the language appears overly broad. Amazon's Web Service Acceptable Use Policy, for instance, bans content that is "invasive of privacy." Has Amazon seen its own tracking cookies? It also bans "defamatory" and "objectionable" behavior. Who decides what qualifies? It might be too late when you find out.

No one has a clue how this will all shake out, and the cloud lawyers are crossing their fingers as they type.

Cloud computing hard truth No. 11: The extras will get you
Businesses have it tough when the customers start buying on price. The only choice is to cut expenses to the bone, then pray.

The cloud business seems to be following the paths of the hotel and airline businesses. They'll do anything to get the core cost as low as possible because they know that people buy on price. But then they'll try to make up for this cheap price with add-ons. Didn't one airline investigate charging to use the bathroom? Shh. Don't tell the cloud companies; they'll wonder if they can charge you to use the rm command with your server.

The trouble for most server customers is that it's hard to guess how many extra services you'll use. It's easy to count the number of instances and keep a lid on them, but can you estimate how much data will flow between your machines? Some cloud companies charge for that. If one programmer uses a fat data structure like XML, it could quadruple your bandwidth charges.

The companies aren't the only ones to blame. The customers who buy on price alone push the clouds to adopt this model, and there's no easy way out of this dynamic.

Cloud computing hard truth No. 12: Responsibility for backup still rests on you
It's tempting to buy into the marketing hype and think of the cloud as one giant, perfect collection of computing resources. When you need to crunch numbers, you cast your spell across the ocean and the answers rise from the mists.

In practice, the machines are just machines. When you get root on some instance, that machine is as delicate as a server downstairs. Do you build a backup plan for your server today? Then you should build one for your software in the cloud, too. It can fail as well.

The best cloud companies are making it obvious how to accomplish this. They're telling you where the computers are located and allowing you to spin up machines in different locations with disk drives protected by various levels of RAID. More transparency about these features is cluing you in on the necessity. You should take the hint.

Some cloud providers are also building services that offer rather abstract promises that stop just short of perfection. No one can come up with perfection, so you shouldn't be surprised when the cloud can't do it either. Instead, find a way to create your own backup of the data periodically and store that in a vault. Back it up outside the cloud to a nice box on your desk or down the hall. Then check this data periodically.

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