xkcd Nails the Cloud on Head, Behind the Scenes of Cloud Computing with Black Hat

In Randal Monroe’s recent xkcd comic, The Cloud, the infamous Black Hat is the sysadmin of the “Cloud,” the catchall term for the distributed storage and computing resources now available on the Internet. Monroe posits Black Hat as the end product for all of the supposedly vast computing resources that comprise the great and mighty cloud.

The cloud used to denote the vast network of connections between the end user and distant computing resources such as a ftp server or web server. Now, the Cloud refers to massively distributed computing across dispersed data centers that provide computing time, storage, and online services [read more on Wikipedia here, and Ars Technica provides an excellent summary here]. In both cases, the cloud/Cloud refers to seemingly complex systems that “just work” for the end user to perform tasks or store off-site data. Before, it was about connecting two end points together via the cloud, and now, it is about computing that takes place “out there” in the Cloud.

Monroe’s comic reflects the danger of placing too much trust into the supposedly “too big to fail” Cloud. With resources bought and sold between Cloud providers, how do you know where your data is being stored? With these complex systems becoming increasingly complex due to technology and capital transactions, how do you know that your data is protected? And the appearance of Black Hat as the beginning and end of the Cloud also points to the fact that the Cloud has no allegiance. For example, there have been cases where Amazon EC2, a popular Cloud computing service, has been used by hackers for criminal exploits [read more here and here].

I am a proponent of local storage and personal backups. I augment this practice with distributed backup storage, but I do not want to give my computing storage over to a third party that can do down, lose data, or be unreachable for whatever reason. There are also privacy concerns about the safety of my data and questions about what third parties may do with your data (e.g., data mining, or ferreting out supposedly copied mp3s and deleting them).

Be careful about the terms and conditions of any Cloud computing service that you choose to use. I am interested in Apple’s iCloud service, but I want to do more research about their terms and conditions before I begin sending my data over.

I suggest taking a balanced approach to your own use of Cloud computing. Whether it is business, research, or personal, the stakes today are higher than ever if your data can be somehow commoditized by computing providers or hackers.

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