Should Companies Do Most of Their Computing in the Cloud? (Part 3)
Cloud computing is the future of computing. Specialization and outsourcing make society more efficient and scalable, and computing isn’t any different.
But why aren’t we there yet? Why don’t we, in Simon Crosby’s words, “get on with it”? I have discussed some reasons: loss of control, new and unquantifiable security risks, and — above all — a lack of trust. It is not enough to simply discount them, as the number of companies not embracing the cloud shows. It is more useful to consider what we need to do to bridge the trust gap.
A variety of mechanisms can create trust. When I outsourced my food preparation to a restaurant last night, it never occurred to me to worry about food safety. That blind trust is largely created by government regulation. It ensures that our food is safe to eat, just as it ensures our paint will not kill us and our planes are safe to fly. It is all well and good for Mr. Crosby to write that cloud companies “will invest heavily to ensure that they can satisfy complex…regulations,” but this presupposes that we have comprehensive regulations. Right now, it is largely a free-for-all out there, and it can be impossible to see how security in the cloud works. When robust consumer-safety regulations underpin outsourcing, people can trust the systems.
This is true for any kind of outsourcing. Attorneys, tax preparers and doctors are licensed and highly regulated, by both governments and professional organizations. We trust our doctors to cut open our bodies because we know they are not just making it up. We need a similar professionalism in cloud computing.
Reputation is another big part of trust. We rely on both word-of-mouth and professional reviews to decide on a particular car or restaurant. But none of that works without considerable transparency. Security is an example. Mr Crosby writes: “Cloud providers design security into their systems and dedicate enormous resources to protect their customers.” Maybe some do; many certainly do not. Without more transparency, as a cloud customer you cannot tell the difference. Try asking either Amazon Web Services or Salesforce.com to see the details of their security arrangements, or even to indemnify you for data breaches on their networks. It is even worse for free consumer cloud services like Gmail and iCloud.
We need to trust cloud computing’s performance, reliability and security. We need open standards, rules about being able to remove our data from cloud services, and the assurance that we can switch cloud services if we want to.
We also need to trust who has access to our data, and under what circumstances. One commenter wrote: “After Snowden, the idea of doing your computing in the cloud is preposterous.” He isn’t making a technical argument: a typical corporate data center isn’t any better defended than a cloud-computing one. He is making a legal argument. Under American law — and similar laws in other countries — the government can force your cloud provider to give up your data without your knowledge and consent. If your data is in your own data center, you at least get to see a copy of the court order.
Corporate surveillance matters, too. Many cloud companies mine and sell your data or use it to manipulate you into buying things. Blocking broad surveillance by both governments and corporations is critical to trusting the cloud, as is eliminating secret laws and orders regarding data access.
In the future, we will do all our computing in the cloud: both commodity computing and computing that requires personalized expertise. But this future will only come to pass when we manage to create trust in the cloud.
This essay previously appeared on the Economist website, as part of a debate on cloud computing. It’s the third of three essays. Here are Parts 1 and 2. Visit the site for the other side of the debate and other commentary.