The Not So Obvious Problems With Cloud Computing

The Cloud. Originally, it was just a metaphor for the internet, the area outside of your own network. That was how it appeared on the network diagram during college (and probably still appears, if Cisco has anything to do with it.). The past few years have brought new meaning to “the cloud”. It has gone from being a way to represent unknown complexity, to the buzzword for every information/application programmer in the known world.

The promise of “The Cloud” goes something like this: You will be able to access all your information simply by using your internet connection. All the processing and “grunt work” will be done by other computers(usually servers) located elsewhere. The data will be stored there as well, along with your user privileges. You will pay, based only on the amount of data/processing time that you use.

This is great, considering the fact that you could buy a very cheap netbook, for around $300 or so, and run all the apps that you are having. It is basically a thin client/server model that banks have been using for years, extrapolated over a huge network. One of the many purported advantages is the lack of hardware obsolescence. Right now, when a game with extremely high graphical requirements shows up on the horizon, gamers have to go upgrade their graphics card/physics processor and RAM to keep up.

If the game is being run over the cloud, via a high speed internet connection, and a game server is handling processing, then there would be no need to run anything but a low power pc,(it might even be running my beloved Ubuntu, as it would be platform agnostic). The server would simply translate the game into vectors. Essentially, you would be working with an interactive video of the game, rather than playing a video game. It’s a subtle difference, but one that would forever alter the gaming landscape. For one thing, you would no longer own a physical copy of the game. Rather, you would pay for a subscription for the game, and then unsubcribe once you lost interest.

This sounds like an ideal situation, but there are some very real problems with the model. Consider the fact that your gaming subscription, is say, $9.95 a month. You beat the game in the average of 8-13 hours that it takes to play the game through. It costs you $1 or so an hour for your experience. That’s not bad, for a pretty decent game. That’s cheaper than the $45-$50 you would currently pay for a new release on the PC platform. From a cost/benefit perspective, you win, at least in this situation. Now, let’s talk about the games that people play on a regular, shall we say, compulsive basis: Titles like Call of Duty 4, Starcraft II, HALO, any of the titles that have made loads of money at $50 a pop.

In many places, you buy these for the multiplayer experience, rather than the single-player, story mode. Now, let’s revisit the $9.95 a month subscription fee. Many people play these games each and every day, over servers hosted by the game manufacturers. The costs of hosting these games is built into the purchase price of the game. Under the subscription model, you will pay $120 for this game, over the course of a year, rather than $50 for a lifetime of play. Under the subscription model, you don’t own the game.

Now, let’s imagine you really like this game. The subscribers keep falling on this particular game. In fact, subscription levels are so low, that they have decided to drop this game altogether. Your favorite game has now vanished, and you don’t have a physical copy. Now, there’s always that whole “contact the developers, and pray they let you pay for a downloadable version”, but what would you do with it. Your hardware no longer has the specs to run it. Now, you have to go buy a $2000 machine, to run a game, that by this point would be in the bargain bin at $14.95 . You have been owned, to the tune of several hundred dollars.

That’s from a gameplay perspective. What about a business perspective? To a certain extent, most of us are already “cloud” reliant. We all use webmail, and our email is stored remotely. A recent outage of Gmail in Europe showed the vulnerability of this model. You’ve got your data stored next to your competitors data, and managed by someone else entirely. You are no longer managing the security of your organization. They take no responsibility in their terms of service for downtime, or lost business. In fact, this outage was caused by a minor software upgrade, rolled out across thousands of servers, worldwide. Imagine the profits lost, and problem caused by email being out for a couple of hours. What if you are using hosted documents, or your calendar is out? Think about the mass confusion that this would create in a large organization.

What if you are a graphic designer, using Photoshop CS7 over the cloud? This is your bread and butter. During a crucial project, the servers grind to a halt. You miss your deadline. Again, it’s out of your hands, but business still needs to be done. You could run an older local version, but the file format of the new version is not backwards compatible. Oh, and you pay $65 a month for this.

Now, let’s talk about something that is even more frustrating, and glaringly obvious: Your internet access goes out. Welcome to a serious problem. Now, you have zero access to your data, apps, and the like. This is not to say that there will not be any contingencies thought up. They will just be insufficient, and inevitably fail. Even if they don’t, however, remember this: The company that you pay the subscription to has your stuff. They can now hold it for ransom, should you forget to pay.

Even worse, they are only responsible for keeping copies of your work while you are a paying customer. Yahoo already deletes the data in accounts that haven’t been accessed in more than 6 months. While it is to the company’s advantage to keep an archived copy, in case you want to resubscribe, they are not usually under obligation to do so, and can change their terms of service at any time, just by sending you an email notification. There are inevitably hiccups along the way, and while these situations are far-fetched, they have to happen to someone. Are you willing to take the risk that it will be you?

While there are plenty of advantages to the cloud model, the disadvantages need to be weighed before subscribing to any such service. In terms of privacy, ownership, and reliability, the cloud model leaves plenty to be desired. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go upgrade my video card, and pay an outrageous price for a game.

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