Recent Foibles Expose Dark Side of Cloud Computing

by Paul Rubens

OS Roundup: The operating system isn't nearly as important as the data, yet neither Microsoft nor Apple seems to realize this. When it comes to protecting your data, you're your own best defense.

Everyone knows that when dealing in real estate, three things are really important: location, location, location. And when it comes to IT systems, only three things are important: data, data, and data. We can talk for hours — and frequently do here — about enterprise operating systems, but ultimately they are all just a means to an end — running applications to manipulate data.

So it's always a good idea to design an operating system that preserves your data rather than, say, deleting it, without so much as a by-your-leave.

Which is just what the clowns in Cupertino seem to have done. That's right: Apple's bug-riddled new OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard release — the self-styled "world's most advanced operating system. Finely tuned" — has a nasty habit of deleting the contents of a user's home directory if he logs in and out of the guest account and then back in to his own account. All that data: gone.

Now you and I might have assumed that Apple would do something simple like test the world's most advanced operating system to see if it would destroy all that data *before* releasing it to the public. But, apparently, the company was too busy finely tuning Snow Leopard to worry about anything as trivial as that. It's another sign that while Apple rules the world of music players and other electronic gadgets, it doesn't fully understand the intricacies of computing. Here's a hint, Apple: data, data, data beats eye candy, eye candy, eye candy every time.

Fear of losing data is one of the reasons many organizations are looking to do an increasing amount of computing in the cloud, and why operating system makers like Microsoft are pushing cloud storage features in their future offerings. Because we all know the cloud is the best place for your data, under the custodianship of specialists who's only job is to ensure data is stored safely and backed up effectively, in multiple secure sites. They can do it in a way that is simply uneconomical to try and do yourself.

Which is why the recent Microsoft/Danger/Sidekick fiasco is so troubling. Actually, it's more than troubling: It should be scaring the pants off anyone who is thinking of relying on cloud storage for any of their enterprise data.

Here's the sorry story: The Sidekick is a mobile device that stores data — photos, contacts, calendars and so on — in the cloud, on servers run by Danger, the Microsoft subsidiary that makes the Sidekick. It's not quite clear exactly how, but following a server failure or perhaps a SAN upgrade, the muppets at Microsoft apparently "did an Apple" and managed to lose all that valuable customer data. Redundant systems? Older backups? Fallback data centers? It seems there were none: The data has almost certainly gone forever. The situation may be cloudy, but Microsoft has hinted that there's a better chance of meatballs than getting any data back from that particular cloud.

So what are the lessons to be learned from all this? Don't touch a Mac if you care about your data, certainly. And don't trust Microsoft to look after you data in the cloud, perhaps. But if you can't trust Microsoft, who can you trust?

When it comes to your data, trust no one but yourself. Some people won't like to admit it, but cloud storage services, like Apple's operating systems, are only as good as the people who design them. The moral of the story: Before you buy, make sure you are not dealing with clowns or muppets.

Paul Rubens is a journalist based in Marlow on Thames, England. He has been programming, tinkering and generally sitting in front of computer screens since his first encounter with a DEC PDP-11 in 1979.

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This article was originally published on Tuesday Oct 13th 2009
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