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Rich Bruklis

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Lost on the Op-Ed page

First, sorry for the disappearing act. I was given the brief to start this blog in my spare time, then they took away my spare time. I've got the work-life balance to post at least every few days now going forward.

But I'm not going to blog just to blog. One thing that prompted me out of remission was an op-ed piece in the New York Times by Harvard Law's Jonathan Zittrain. As with many Ivy types, he makes some remarks that are obvious given a moment's thought, are expressed very well, and not quantified worth a damn.

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/20/opinion/20zittrain.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=lost%20in%20the%20cloud&st=cse

Zittrain's thesis is that the cloud is a dangerous place. It's great to have all your data backed up offsite but -- and this is why we need Harvard on the job, to think of these things for us -- What If Something Goes Wrong?

The infrastructure could fail. The keepers of that infrastructure might even betray your confidential information. Right to privacy -- a dubious enough concept in the real world -- is practically non-existent online. Under the Patriot Act, the government can grab your data without a warrant just as easily as it could tap your phone. And then heaven help you if you're actually sending packets outside U.S. borders!

All good points, Professor Zittrain. The op-ed piece was directed at a general readership (although most Times subscribers would probably bristle at that characterization) and was focused more on personal computing. So it's not surprising that they're nothing that any decent CIO hasn't already thought of.

The questions, then, are how real are these risks? How can they be mitigated? And most important: How much could they cost you?

Real? Sure they're real. System failure is definitely real. Industrial espionage is a possibility. Beyond that, maybe we're just descending into paranoia.

Zittrain suggests some public policy solutions to mitigate: Fair practices law could compel cloud providers to send your data back to you upon one-click request and delete it from their own devices. Other privacy protection statutes could be enacted. And of course cloud customers can take matters into their own hands by improving their encryption and deploying other security options.

At what cost, then? Legislation is expensive, but doesn't tend to hit the CIO's p&l statement. Industry groups have lobbying firms on retainer; it may be time for industry groups to put Zittrain's public policy initiatives on the front burner. Security can be costly; I've had clients whose firewall servers consisted of $50,000/year of software stacked on $5,000 (one-time) worth of hardware. But that just reminds me of what's been written on bumper stickers about school district taxes: "If you think education is expensive, try ignorance."

Zittrain hits on one critical hidden cost of the cloud, and on this point I think he's quite right and actually displays the kind of foresight that Harvard people are supposed to display on a regular basis: The cloud could shackle innovation.

"Both the most difficult challenge -- both to grast and to solve -- of the cloud is its effect on our freedom to innovate," Zittrain writes. "The crucial legacy of the personal computer is that anyone can write code for it and give or sell that code to you -- and the vendors of the PC and its operating system have no more say about it than your phone company does about which answering machine you decide to buy."

(Answering machine? They still sell those?)

The point, again directed at the personal computing public, is well taken in the corporate world. If you have people on your team who love to tinker and are good at it, the cloud will put opportunities out of their reach.

They won't be able to write spaghetti code. They won't be able to forget to tell anyone about it and never enter their changes into the CMDB. They won't be able to cause outages just by going on vacation. They won't be able to negotiate outrageous raises because they're the only ones who understand the "improvements" they made. They won't be able to retire at 39 and come back as $400/hour consultants at 40.

Instead, such monkeying around can only be done by people who do the same system administration and operation tasks day in and day out for a variety of customers with similar requirements, applying their professionalism and knowledge concentration seemlessly and invisibly.

Hmm, maybe the standardization benefit outweighs the innovation cost.

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More Stories By Rich Bruklis

A 20 year veteran of the storage industry, Rich has been a business leader in product marketing. He has seen the industry change from backup on 5.25" floppies to 10,000 cartridge tape libraries with every tape "standard" in between. Rich has supported 5.25" 30MB hard drives and launched disk arrays with hundreds of drives. Most recently, Rich has focused on business continuity and disaster recovery.

While the hardware industry continues to experience BBFC (Bigger, Better, Faster, Cheaper), there is a cloud on the horizon that is about to disrupt that trend. Cloud Computing will fundamentally change the IT world much like the network changed client-server computing.