The forecast: clouds, with grey linings, perhaps turning to silver later

Samsung has today announced the first publicly available laptop based on Google’s Chrome OS. The laptop is aimed at both consumers and corporate users.

What’s different?
Unlike many laptops and netbooks, Samsung’s new laptop comes with only 16 GB of (solid state) storage for files. By way of comparison, my MacBook that I bought last year came with a 320GB hard drive (20 times larger). Of that 320GB, approximately 70GB of that is taken up by photos, music and videos (including a staggering 25GB of which relates to photos and video from my wedding and honeymoon last year).

So why is the storage space on a Chrome laptop so small? The reason is that users won’t store any files on the laptop itself. Instead, the user will use remotely hosted applications like Google Docs and store its files in a “secure” space in the Cloud. Google and Samsung cites a number of advantages of this approach – if the laptop breaks or is stolen, then the data won’t be lost, and because applications and files are hosted remotely, the computing power required at the user end is much less; ergo a Chrome OS laptop is much cheaper to buy.

We are seeing an increasing interest in clients (both large and small) adopting cloud computing and virtual desktops – finally realising the dream that Sun had for its thin JavaStation clients back in 1996 (I remember this well – I wrote a dissertation on it when doing Higher Computer Studies). As applications and files are hosted on a remote server, it means that users require only a very basic computer, meaning lower upfront and support costs and more flexibility to support various ways of working.

Dark clouds on the horizon
But as we saw a couple of weeks ago, the Cloud is not infallible. Leaving aside a reliance on patchy (and often slow) 3G coverage and wifi for mobile users in the UK, there are a number of risks. Users of Amazon’s EC2 cloud computing service suffered a major outage, leading to some users being affected for up to four days. The outage knocked out a number of businesses and arose notwithstanding a number of failover systems that Amazon claimed to have in place to prevent this sort of thing from happening.

Whilst a consumer may consider such an outage to be a risk worth taking given the cost and convenience benefits of using the Cloud, I suspect that businesses may take a different view. Reports have confirmed that because of the way the outage occurred, Amazon’s outage didn’t actually trigger a breach of Amazon’s service level agreement, meaning that users had no automatic entitlement to service credits (although on this occasion Amazon has made a discretionary award of compensation to affected customers). That’s a tough one for a CIO to explain to his CEO – not only did the service fail, but there isn’t even a right to any service credits.

Raining on the Cloud’s parade
The Amazon outage also highlights the risks of, to mix some more metaphors, putting all your eggs in one cloud. If a business is dependant upon the Cloud in order to trade or for its employees to carry out their day to day duties (because all data is hosted remotely), and is also dependant upon a single cloud vendor, then it needs to look very carefully at the business continuity, and DR provisions that the cloud vendor has in place and consider if those are sufficient.

Similarly, if all your data is hosted by a third party in the cloud, then you may be reliant upon that third party to ensure that your data is backed up, and may also need to consider how you can get it out of the Cloud at the end (particularly when using software as a service applications). See Damien’s previous blog on this.

Wrapping up a bad couple of weeks for the Cloud, the hacking attack and theft of data from Sony’s PlayStation network also emphasises the importance of ensuring the security of data (personal or otherwise) held in the Cloud. Just playing some Rolling Stones isn’t going to be enough.

I don’t doubt that the Cloud will continue to grow in importance, but these recent events show the legal and commercial risks associated with cloud computing, and a number of the issues that cloud providers need to overcome before the market will fully mature. In the meantime, businesses seeking to move to Cloud will need to ensure that they read the small print and carry out appropriate diligence on their proposed supplier(s).

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