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Follow the Crowd to the Cloud at Your Own Risk

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Virtually everyone with a pulse on technology has heard the hype about “moving to the cloud”. Most people just assume that it’s the obvious thing to do in a world where they are virtually always online. I jumped on the bandwagon myself recently, checking out the latest version of Microsoft Office in the cloud, known as Office365. I must admit it, it seems slick as it seamlessly integrates with OneDrive and SharePoint. On the other hand, I just can’t bring myself to the point of complete faith and trust when it comes to relying on the cloud as the primary storage location for my files.

One must first realize that the gurus in Redmond, WA, Cupertino, CA, and other technological strongholds, see the world from an entirely different point of view than you or me, the average web user.This difference frames some additional reservations I have that will be helpful to consider when deciding whether or not cloud data storage is for you.

Basic Reliability

Developers never consider important things like electricity – or the lack of it. This may not be an issue very often, but what do you do when you are faced with a power outage that takes you offline? My home is roughly 40 miles from Chicago, which is by no means the same as living in a developing country, but there are still power outages to contend with several times per year. When the power goes out, I still need access to my files. If they are saved locally, I don’t need internet connectivity to keep working on my computer in battery mode until the electricity comes on again. This isn’t an option when all of your files are stored in the cloud.

The availability of your Internet connection can go down without notice, which also cuts you off from your files stored in the cloud. While this isn’t something that happens every day either, it is a risk that is increasing due to the rise in cyber attacks on computer networks. There are always random outages that can occur due non malicious network failures, usually at the worst possible time. Imagine preparing a presentation for a new prospect and not being able to get to your files when you need them most.

Let’s not forget that dial-up access is also frequently the only option for Internet users in many rural areas and developing countries, which spells trouble in terms of reliability, slow connection speeds and modem connectivity issues. Even mobile users in cities on 3G and 4G networks can also face reliability issues when it comes to accessing data in the cloud. I have first hand experience with this as there are four mobile providers where I live and I only get a reliable data signal from just one of them.

The reliability issues that I have mentioned so far may seem trivial to the masterminds behind the scenes at large tech firms, as the odds are tipped in their favor. These giants have multiple backup power sources and redundant Internet connections at their disposal. But for people in the real world, especially those of the road warrior variety who frequently travel across sales areas or even outside the country, reliable access to electricity and the Internet are important considerations for vital to using cloud services.

Cascading Outages

What about the availability of the cloud service itself? Major outages for widely used cloud services like Dropbox, Google Drive, Windows Azure Storage, Amazon Web Services and others, have left users out of commission sometimes for days, not just hours. Moreover, some providers have experienced outages multiple times over the course of a given year, resulting in many hours of lost productivity for users. In June of last year, Rajesh Jha, Corporate Vice President of Office 365 Engineering, was called to task for critical outages that prevented users from accessing email and shared files over a two-day period. Rajesh explained the resulting problems that occurred even after service was restored, “Even though connectivity was restored in minutes, the ensuing traffic spike caused several network elements to get overloaded, resulting in some of our customers being unable to access Lync functionality for an extended duration”.   How much down time can you really afford?

Data Security and Data Privacy

These factors should be a concern of everyone. After all, who’s really comfortable with the idea of their data being stored in the cloud, in the hands of total strangers, subject to the prying eyes of unauthorized data miners, cybercriminals and beyond? Hackers are becoming more and more sophisticated everyday, as we saw with the Sony/Paramount Pictures cyber attack of 2014. Prior to that we saw Target, Sears, JP Morgan Chase and Aetna Insurance all struggling for weeks to recover from their data attacks. One could only image the fallout, if a similar attack took out cloud services for a major provider like Amazon, Google or Microsoft.

Given the security risks that cloud users generally face, you must seriously consider what happens in the event that hackers get their hands on your data. Who will be responsible and what recourse will you have when it comes to identity theft or any other criminal use of your information, especially if the provider operates outside of U.S. jurisdictions? Let’s also not forget about the privacy issues that can occur when hackers work their magic. They can now potentially track your movements, including who you’ve communicated with, shared files with, your appointments and the contents of your personal files are all up for grabs when you use cloud storage and apps.

Relying on cloud based services requires a willingness to put your faith in systems, people and circumstances that are totally beyond your control. I will never be comfortable with that prospect because accidents and failures can and do happen. For me, a local machine, be it a desktop, laptop or tablet is the way to meet my primary data storage needs. At least when the power goes out or the Internet goes down, I can keep on working on battery power with my locally installed apps and locally saved files.

Nevertheless, cloud storage still has a place in my life, even in light of the reliability, security and privacy issues that are involved with its use. It has served me well, as a secondary and temporary backup method for files that I am working on, mostly when traveling or when the need arises to share a file with someone.

Knowing the risks of cloud-based storage should make it much easier to decide what data you’re willing to store there, given the risks that come with this new territory.

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