Your data is safer in the cloud than you think

Despite high-profile hiccups, cloud vendors are probably better at preserving data than you are

Nearly every week, news articles crop up shouting about someone's cloud data or application temporarily -- or in some rare instances, permanently -- disappearing. Name a vendor and they've probably been in the news. "Ack!" and "Not ready for prime time!" go the headlines.  Cloud computing may be the future, but it isn't ready for the enterprise.

Or is it?

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For every big news story making the headlines about cloud data availability issues, I bet there are thousands more incidents of data loss on noncloud systems. Yes, I know that there are hundreds of thousands times more noncloud systems (or whatever the ratio is), but think about how many people you know who have lost everything on their computers because they didn't have a recent backup. How many companies have you worked at that thought they were getting good data backups -- but weren't? How many companies have lost data, then had a hard time recovering it, only to mess up a second time with seemingly no lesson learned?

We all know those companies. Heck, how many of people reading this article have perfect backups of our own data? Be honest.

Because cloud vendors are charged with supporting large amounts of data and multiple customers, by their very nature, they have to have their data protection policies and procedures down to a science. If a server goes down, they must have a hundred like it ready to take over in an instant. They require redundant Internet access, power supplies, air-handling systems, and so on. They need to have a handle on round-robin patching, fluid virtual machines, performance metrics, event-log monitoring, alerting, and every other aspect of systems management that most companies hope to optimize one day. It's imperative that cloud vendors understand those topics from day one.

Your company may have some 24/7 applications, maybe even a few 24/7 datacenters, but in the cloud vendor world, every aspect of their environment is 24/7. It isn't the exception -- it's the only rule.

This doesn't mean cloud vendors are perfect. Obviously the popular headlines and their legal contracts say they aren't. But I'll postulate that cloud data and application reliability already beats the reliability experience of most companies and people today.

This thought occurred to me during a personal experience a few weeks ago. I had already upgraded four computers in my house to Windows 7, with only my work laptop remaining. I was switching from 32-bit to 64-bit operating systems, so there wasn't a direct upgrade path. I had to do a complete install. I diligently backed up my data, all 21GB of it, to my previously trustworthy USB hard drive. The backup went great, although I foolishly skipped the optional verification to save a few hours of time. The new install went great, but during the restore, bad clusters killed the backup in the middle of its job. I tried again and again, but no luck. I did a chkdsk /f on the disc only to find two unrecoverable errors.

There was data that I was going to have a hard time recovering: client data, my latest book, e-mails, everything. Some of it I was sure would be gone forever -- things I could not re-create.

I was just getting ready to buy another copy of Steve Gibson's SpinRite 6 utility -- the best hard disk recovery software tool you can buy -- when I decided to start my main office applications. I've been using my parent company's (Microsoft) latest office productivity app, which comes in both traditional and cloud forms. The interfaces between the two versions are nearly identical, although you can tell the difference, especially in the way a feature or function works when you click on a button.

[ Find out how Microsoft Office is battling a growing threat from Google in the cloud. ]

I'm not a big fan of HTML interfaces for applications, but it's getting harder and harder to find non-HTML applications these days, and with Web 2.0 on the horizon, it will be harder. Also, I'm personally interested in cloud computer security, and I research the topic on a daily basis. I've been putting my old hacker skills to work in a new media. For many reasons, I decided to bite the bullet, against my better judgment, and try the cloud-computing version.

When I started my most commonly used applications, every bit of my cloud-stored data was there. The most mission-critical pieces of my data were waiting for me oblivious to my recent cluster failure. But it wasn't just my office data that was saved; so were almost all the components that make my computer "my computer."

I sat there thinking how quickly my computing repair life had changed, seemingly in an instant. Most of my friends and family members only use online mail. I no longer back up and recover e-mail, address books, contact lists, or calendars. We have entire cities adopting cloud-based office productive applications. My smartphone's data is synced with my cloud's data. My bill-paying software is online and managed by my bank. I only check my bank balance to make sure there aren't any unexpected transactions. I didn't have to worry about my Intuit Quicken program. It was backed up and ready to go.

Gigabytes of my family's photos were still on a free online Web site. The years of data on various blogs and social portals were still intact -- every typo saved for posterity. My music history is saved in my streamline music site. When relaunched, it started off in the middle of the track where I had left it. I don't download music or buy DVDs or Blu-ray discs anymore. My movies are stored and retrieved on Netflix, and my game history is stored online (although many of the games are still in DVD form). My stock trading account was safe and sound.

I didn't escape completely unharmed. I had to rebuild my browser favorites and logon to some Web sites to regain auto-logon status, but to be honest, I was just floored with how much of my life is already online. Here I am, something of a cloud cynic, even though I know it's the future -- and I didn't realize that most of my digital-ready life is already living, safely, in the cloud.

The practical reality is that cloud computing, from all vendors, will only keep on improving. Cloud data reliability will only get better. It's already demonstrated that it's better than I am. My mom recently bought a new laptop, and the only thing I had to transfer was her favorites and add a few familiar desktop icons to launch to her favorite Web sites -- done in a few minutes.

And yes, GRC's SpinRite 6 does recover USB drives with no problems. I would also recommend running periodic disk error scans on your portable hard drives ahead of relying on them to store large amounts of critical data. After 20-plus years in the business, you'd think I'd know to do that first.

My head must have been in the clouds!

This story, "Your data is safer in the cloud than you think," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest developments in information security and cloud computing at InfoWorld.com.

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