March 26, 2017

Sidekick Users' Data Lost: Blame the Cloud?

Users of Sidekick mobile phones saw much of their data disappear last week due to engineering problems at a Microsoft data center. Sidekick devices lose the contents of their memory when they don’t have power (e.g. when the battery is being changed), so all data is transmitted to a data center for permanent storage — which turned out not to be so permanent.

(The latest news is that some of the data, perhaps most of it, may turn out to be recoverable.)

A common response to this story is that this kind of danger is inherent in “cloud” computing services, where you rely on some service provider to take care of your data. But this misses the point, I think. Preserving data is difficult, and individual users tend to do a mediocre job of it. Admit it: You have lost your own data at some point. I know I have lost some of mine. A big, professionally run data center is much less likely to lose your data than you are.

It’s worth noting, too, that many cloud services face lower risk of this sort of problem. My email, for example, lives in the cloud–the “official copy” is on a central server, and copies are downloaded frequently to my desktop and laptop computers. If the server were to go up in flames, along with all of the server backups, I would still be in good shape, because I would still have copies of everything on my desktop and laptop.

For my email and similar services, the biggest risk to data integrity is not that the server will disappear altogether, but that the server will misbehave in subtle ways, causing my stored data to be corrupted over time. Thanks to the automatic synchronization between the server and my two clients (desktop and laptop), bad data could be replicated silently into all copies. In principle, some of the damage could be repaired later, using the server’s backups, but that’s a best case scenario.

This risk, of buggy software corrupting data, has always been with us. The question is not whether problems will happen in the cloud — in any complex technology, trouble comes with the territory — but whether the cloud makes a problem worse.

Comments

  1. Clouds are opaque.

    What this episode has shown is that the “A big, professionally run data center is much less likely to lose your data than you are” line isn’t necessarily true. And although you, Ed Felten, appear to use services where a copy of your data also resides in usable form on storage controlled by you, that’s also not anywhere near universally true. (It wasn’t true for sidekicks, for example, because the software architecture was effectively closed from external synch.)

    The cloud, I would submit, is like innovative financial instruments. It doesn’t by itself make any problem worse, but users’ and marketers’ tendency to ignore issues of transparency and single points of failure that derail large ecosystems can make cloud-based disasters much broader and deeper than the aggregate of similar disasters in the small.

  2. reserving data is really difficult, and individual users tend to do a mediocre job of it. Author Benjamin Rich decided to undertake a journey to a place he dubbed Whitopia. In the 1970s, there was a series of events called “White Flight,” which consisted of a predominantly white set of people moved to suburbs to escape the inner cities. The suburbs are now starting to empty, and the same group of people, typically middle class, move to smaller towns, usually more rural areas, to escape the suburbs, and these areas were dubbed Whitopia by Rich. You can get it off Amazon in hardback for about $30, or for the Kindle for $10, less than any fax payday loan. However, getting a Kindle to read Whitopia might run you some easy cash loans.

  3. Chris Barts says:

    According to Jason Scott, and I agree with him “The Cloud” is meaningless:

    “Simply put, I think the term ‘the cloud’ is completely goddamn meaningless. It is used by all manner of people to sell all sorts of products and ideas. Some of these products and ideas are good. Many are rotten. And all of it gets thrown into this idea.

    This manner of salesmanship drives me batshit, because it’s kind of like a smiling guy going ‘remember good aspects of something? That’s what I’m selling! Oh, you remember bad stuff. That’s not me!’ ”

    It could just mean putting your data on centralized servers and letting other people worry about the backups.

    It could> mean handing your data over to people not competent to run a webserver, let alone institute backups.

    It could mean a lot of things.

    What it does mean is anything some marketer wants it to.

  4. The problem with the cloud is that there tend to be more links in the chain.

    If I need to use some data now then if it resides on my local drive then my local machine has to be in working order.

    If it resides in the “cloud” then my local machine has to be in working order and my phone line (that carries my broadband) has to be working and the connection from the exchange to the ISP has to be working and the connection from my ISP to the cloud provider has to be working and the cloud provider has to be working.

    In my case three of the latter things have had significant outage (>3 hours) in the past month.

  5. Simply, I think the risks of cloud-computing outweigh the benefits. I have read recent articles which claim that cloud computing will drive down costs for many IT organizations. But I disagree…

    Personally, I do not see a cloud-computing provider any differently than what an ASP (application service provider) was a few years ago. Though there are many more apps / services available in the cloud I do not think ala-carte computing will have much of a life.

    I believe:

    1. cloud-providers will offer services to customers and provide no-to-limited guarantees, take little-to-no responsibility, or limit their liability for loss of data / connection / infrastructure.

    2. cloud-providers will also try and protect themselves from security issues like data / application vandalism or content theft. They cannot guarantee any level of security.

    3. Privacy is a huge concern. They have to provide a guarantee that data storage will not be seen by anyone, or given to anyone, other than the owner(s) of the data. They cannot guarantee 100% privacy.

    ===============================

    This is another effort by providers to dig into our pocketbooks at an ala-carte level. I would not feel comfortable operating a computer on a subscription basis, having my private content filtered through / across the internet, have my data stored by someone else, or suffer the potential of internet traffic jams tyring to get my work done let alone browse.

    The fact is that any sales force (cloud-seeders) which wishes to pitch a cost savings to the corporate industry (or individuals for that matter) are outright lying about what cloud computing will do for them. The cost of cloud computing, at a basic level, will far exceed any IT costs in as little as two years. The price of any security / content theft or content inaccessability will be leaving providers in a fog…