When cloud computing fails

Cloud computing doesn't relieve you of business continuity responsibilities

It's no secret that I'm a fan of using cloud applications for small business data security and business continuity. I live in a hurricane-prone area and think that storing data hundreds of miles from the office is a fine idea. Like so many fine ideas, though, this one comes with consequences, many of them unintended. Some of the consequences of a reliance on cloud apps was brought home a couple of weeks ago when Google Mail -- a critical application that thousands of individuals and businesses count on -- went away for a few hours. The good news is that it came back and (apparently) brought everyone's mail with it. The bad news is that those who depend on Google Mail were without e-mail for hours -- hours that could have been critical for some businesses. So is the cloud unreliable? I don't think so, though individual pieces may be more or less dependable. The point isn't that the cloud is less reliable than hardware and applications you may host yourself -- the point is that the cloud isn't inherently more reliable than hardware and applications you host yourself. The most critical aspects are those that cloud computing doesn't change -- aspects like thinking about business continuity and planning for what happens when an application or storage server goes away. You're thinking, "Hey, it's an e-mail service -- what can I do?" You can start by asking questions about what's involved with changing MX records, and how long it might take for the change to take effect. (If you don't know what MX records are, schedule a meeting with your e-mail support guru now). You'll need a backup e-mail server or provider, but the security of that backup can make a huge difference when critical sales or partnerships are on the line. The same sort of issues apply to online data storage and other business applications: if you can afford to have the information or app unavailable for several hours at a time, then a backup plan is less important. It might be healthier for your heart if you can say, "The server's down -- I think I'll go fishing," but I'm not sure that the laid-back approach is best for every business. The key here is to think about which services are critical, and to make sure you have reliable access to those services wherever they're hosted. A cloud computing solution may relieve you of an obligation to babysit a server, but it doesn't remove any of the responsibility to make sure that your business continues, no matter what.