Ann Arbor Area Business Monthly
Small Business and the Internet

Cloud Burst

January 2012

By Mike Gould

Every once in a while I get a suggestion for an article from the powers that be. In this case, esteemed editor Jan asked:

...I had an idea for a story...I've been seeing commercials for "back-up" offsite computer services. They claim that if your computer crashes, etc. you can get everything back and it backs up everything on your computer automatically every day...Are these reputable folks? Is the service a good thing? Worth a story?

Oh heck yeah, worth two or three stories. In fact I already wrote about this way back in 2008 in an article called "A Cloud on the Horizon" (URL below). But, as I prophesized then ("One thing for sure: the Cloud is here to stay and it will impact your business increasingly in the years to come."), this is a pretty big issue so it is worth re-visiting.

I just re-read said article, and noted how it was mainly about using the cloud for apps and data storage, not so much for back-up. But back-up is excruciatingly important for a small business, so let's talk about that.

I Say Potato
A quick refresh: "The Cloud" refers to Big Honking Servers (BHSs) run by someone other than your company that provide storage, services, and access via the Internet. There is some disagreement among the technologically picky as to the exact definition of cloud computing, but for the moment, the above gets us started.

Back in the day (a Thursday, around 20 years ago) when I got my first network training at the University of Michigan, the Internet-based BHSs were referred to as living in the "steel potato", a reference to a vague ovoid sketched on the blackboard that encompassed all the various entities of the 'net. This made some sense as potatoes are root vegetables, and getting root is important to network people. (This is a hilarious geek joke. Look it up.) Somehow, "potato" didn't catch on, and people decided that the vague ovoid looked more like a cloud, so here we are. I suppose it is easier to envision networked behaviors as floating around somewhere above us as nebulous vapor, instead of sitting below ground in Idaho somewhere, which may be closer to the truth, but I digress.

Anyway, the sequence is: You → Internet → Cloud where your stuff lives. In this case we are talking about backup services. A quick Google search of "cloud backup services" results in 33.8 million results, so there is no shortage of places to pick to store your data. You sign up, pay your fees, upload your data, and it is safely uploaded off-site, available to you for restoration when (not if) disaster strikes. What could possibly go wrong? Well, lots. Please take a moment and re-read my previous article for the litany of issues here. Done? OK, onwards.

Even Paranoids Have Enemies
All the issues I covered back then are still issues, with the added issue of security from government snooping. It seems that Big Brother has decided that all your data belongs to him to check out at will, all in the name of national security. This is admittedly speculation, based on previous behaviors of the Dept. of Homeland Security under the Patriot Act. Service providers have been caving into requests from the DHS and granting access to email and stored data for some time now.

Of course, if they suspect you, the DHS can always march in and seize all your computers and take them away for an indefinite period without a warrant. They do this in airports all the time. But if your data is on your own turf, they have to work harder for it and if you have encrypted your data, they may be SOL anyway.

This discussion is drifting away into justified-paranoia land, but the point is, your backup stored in the cloud is a lot more vulnerable to snoopage than if it is stored on an encrypted tape or external drive in a bank vault. There is a good discussion of this on, URL below. From the discussion:

"Bottom line, if it's in a cloud, you have zero guarantee as to how that information will be used and who will end up with access to it."

A lot of foreign governments and companies are reluctant to host with American companies because of this.

Cloudy With A Chance Of Breakage
For the moment, I'm backing up my stuff to DVDs (for the commercial photography I do) and external hard drives (for everything else). I do this for the following reasons:

My files are so enormous it would take weeks to upload them, even with premium broadband connectivity. I come back from a photo shoot with two or three gigabytes of imagery; no way I'm gonna shove that through the slow pipes that we are stuck with. (The US is something like 17th in Internet access speed world-wide. You knew this, right?)

I'm not all that paranoid about Big Brother myself, but I have client data involved and would not care to put their stuff at risk.

The entire cloud paradigm implies that the Internet will always be working so you always have access to your stored data. My experience tells me that this is not the case. Everyone from Apple to RIM (Blackberry, etc.) have had major outages, and if you have a desperate need to get at your data during such an event, good luck driving to Idaho or wherever your cloud-based server is for retrieval.

This is of course my bias: after 20 years in the IT support business, I mostly see the stuff that breaks, and that tends to color one's perception of how things work.

Yeah, But
That said, Apple has a new, free, means of saving up to 5G of stuff via their iCloud service. So I am using it to store non-critical non-business stuff like my music, photos I shoot on my iPhone, and a few other things that I also have on back-up drives at home.

What could possibly go wrong?

A Cloud on the horizon

Slashdot cloud security article

Mike Gould used to have a recording studio called Cloud 10, was a mouse wrangler for the U of M for 20 years, runs the MondoDyne Web Works/Macintosh Training/Digital Photography mega-mall, builds laser display devices, performs with the Illuminatus 2.2 Lightshow, and welcomes comments addressed to

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