One of the biggest news items this week was an announcement that T-Mobile Sidekick users had all of their online data lost, possibly permanently, by Danger and its parent company Microsoft. After sending this shockwave through the Sidekick community, another announcement followed that the data might be recoverable after all. This is a relief to Sidekick owners, but begs a bigger question – can we really rely on the cloud for the future of computing?
Photo by fdecomite.
Even today, with broadband speeds and computing power that dwarfs that of just a few years ago, cloud computing still has obstacles to overcome before we can trust it as a total replacement for desktop applications. Here are three of the most pressing questions, and some suggestions for how to cope with them.
For as long as sensitive information has been transmitted or stored online, users have worried about security. Really, if you use proper security, the cloud is just as secure as your desktop. There are two additional failure points beyond your computer when you store information on the cloud: transmission of the information, and storage in the cloud.
With the ability to encrypt data, both during transmission and at its final destination, you can increase the safety of your data. First, encrypt sensitive data locally, before transmission, where possible. For example, Moneydance, a desktop personal finance manager, allows you to encrypt your data file. To enable secure access to my data on any of my computers, I encrypt the Moneydance data file, and save it to a Dropbox folder for automatic synchronization between all of my computers. For programs without built-in encryption, you can try a free program like TrueCrypt.
You must also carefully examine the companies to whom you entrust your online data. The developers of LastPass, a password manager, can’t even access your data, as it is encrypted before it reaches them. Evernote is another app that we love here at 40Tech. The Evernote team is fairly open in its forums about the steps it takes to safeguard your data. At the end of the day, you must still ask yourself – do you trust them? Ultimately, you’ll need to weigh the value of the service against the risks associated with it.
It may seem as if the long term viability of your data is always at risk in the cloud, as evidenced not only by the Sidekick fiasco, but also by the reported (and then rescinded) demise of a URL shortening service, and the death of various online storage sites. You can mitigate the risk of data loss, though, by choosing your the services you use wisely, and treating your online data with as much care as you’d treat your local data. That means backing it up. In fact, if you’re not backing up your data, you usually run a greater risk of losing it locally than with a cloud service.
You can automate the backup of some types of online data. For example, Syncplicty allows you to sync documents between your computer and Google Docs. For other services that don’t allow you to synchronize your data to your computer or elsewhere, you should simply make a backup before you upload data to that service. In fact, two copies are better than one. We’ve previously discussed a few backup options here at 40Tech.
A few well-publicized Gmail outages also raise reliability questions. Well, guess what? Given historical reliability figures, your e-mail provider is likely down more often than Gmail. You can’t send email when your provider is down, even if you store your messages locally. If you are a Gmail user, use Google Gears to store your Gmail messages locally.
My biggest gripe with some cloud apps is their speed. Some apps plod along, and just don’t seem well-suited to run in the cloud. There is no short term solution under your control, other than buying more computing power, or streamlining your computer (defragmenting your disc, killing background applications, etc). Really, though, this is a problem that only time, and the app developers themselves, will solve. The good news is that it only seems a matter of time until this changes, as broadband speeds increase, and computers get more and more powerful.
Do you trust the cloud? What steps are you taking to address your concerns with the cloud? Let us know in the comments.