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PlanetLotus Hack and the Danger of Private Clouds - Lessons from Ground Level


The narrowly averted collapse of PlanetLotus this past weekend helped crystalize my thinking on the whole issue of cloud computing, or rather the risks therein...

First of all, Yancy, thank you. Secondly, thank you again.

Thirdly, this strikes me as yet another example of the dangers of relying on the "cloud". Specifically, privately run clouds. Private entities have various motives for maintaining some service (online or otherwise), be it profit or altruism or simple enjoyment. The dangerous part comes when a specific service reaches a point where a significant community of people come to depend on it heavily, to the extent the very health of that community will be impacted by its demise. When something that important is held together by a single individual, we are bound to have problems.

We've seen this before, on a much grander scale and right here at ground level, but the idea is the same. A century ago many American cities were blessed with pretty good public transportation networks in the form of streetcars. These services were integral to the health and vibrancy of the urban communities they served. They were largely if not completely privately run. After WWII, as cars and suburbs diminished the ability of these companies to run their services profitably, they pretty much all disappeared before the communities that depended on them figured out what they had lost. The basic mistake these communities made was not to realize that *public* services cannot be trusted to private companies, at least not over the long term. Some manner of public subsidy is sometimes a required, and sensible, measure to ensure those essential services are maintained. This particular failure helped ensure decades of urban blight across many American cities that fractured those communities in too many ways to cover here.

How this lesson applies here or more generally to other, much bigger, private clouds (I'm talkin' to you Gmail, Facebook, Yahoo Groups, Flickr, et al.) is a question that obviously concerns me. It should probably concern everyone. Unless that is you don't care what happens to your stuff in 5, 10, or 50 years.


1 - Kevin, You are being as hard on the Cloud as I am about VM. In truth it is the same thing.
But does one's web server = the Cloud?
No matter if the box sits in our office or 1,000 miles away at a host or on Amazon, what is the difference if you or I are still the administrator and security of the box and apps? isn't it our fault?
Sure the host or our firewall should prevent it from happening, but it does happen and this is what keeps CIO's up at night.

2 - @1 Keith, that it was a hacker who triggered the incident with PlanetLotus is incidental to my main point: Public services that are privately run can vanish regardless of what the community served wants, and for a variety of reasons.

A private business that runs some service internally isn't likely to turn it off so long as it continues to be useful. A public service provided by a (democratically elected) government isn't likely to be taken away at the whim of the current head of that government against the peoples' wishes.

A secondary point worth highlighting is that some services (cloud or otherwise) are more vital to *community* health than others. A shutdown of Facebook or LinkedIn or Twitter would not just ruin your day, but would utterly destroy the communities that have been built around them. You would also lose a lot of your own personally valuable information, as you would with a GMail shutdown, but at least with GMail you can fairly easily shift to another email address and keep sending email.

I'd like to say I have the answer to addressing these risks, but I don't. I suppose the simple answer is for the "community" to take over the service when the private operator loses interest or the capability to run it. How that happens is where things get complicated, particularly when communities span national boundaries.

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