Down to Earth

Personal computing has been extra-unpredictable of late around the eyrea. First, one of my Twitter tweeple asked more than once with help recovering her blog (guess that means it was permanently missing — I haven't had the heart to ask her directly). Then another person posted several apologetic tweets saying that her blog posts weren't displaying at present, but she hoped to fix it soon. Note that these people use completely different blogging sites.

Meanwhile, I've been fighting with my internet connection off and on all weekend. I'd say it was settled now, but I'm afraid if I do it'll go down again. For a while I even thought I had a virus — two other machines and one different operating system later I had confirmed that it was my connection, not the machines I was using to attach to it.

As I was slouched over my laptop this morning, considering putting on street clothes so I could go across the road to the local Starbuck's and use their WiFi, I thought about how much of an inconvenience losing my internet connection would really be.

And then I started counting my blessings, because even though I love my gadgets, I've never fallen for the cloud.

Cloud computing, for those who find learning new jargon every week annoying (and I'm right with you, but it's part of my job) is when instead of using locally-installed applications and saving to your local machine like Vannevar Bush meant you to, you go to a web site and save everything to the servers of that web site. Everyone's favourite examples are webmail and Google Docs, but there are plenty of others, including blog sites.

Joining the cloud has lots of advantages. If you don't actually own a computer, but have access to them through cafés or other means, you can have an internet presence, even though you never know what physical machine you'll be on next. Many applications let you share your data with people you specify by e-mail address or login ID. You never need to worry about application fees or upgrades.

Unfortunately, joining the cloud has lots of disadvantages too. If the company hosting the cloud application decides that the service isn't viable, they can take down the site and leave you with no way to access your data. A nice site will notify you and give you a chance to download everything before a certain date, but probably buried somewhere in that EULA you clicked by, there's a phrase stating that they don't have to. They can pack up and take their toys — and yours — any time they like.

Weirdly, cloud computing sites often advertise that they are more reliable than saving things on your local machine because they claim to be more diligent about backing up their servers than the average home computer user is about backing up their hard drive. This ought to be true, but they have their shares of disasters too.

Once upon a time, I was a trainer to a group of customer service reps who supported a popular webmail application (never ye mind which one). Our client had all the trainers and managers on a subscription service that told us about any outages and approximately how many users they affected.

One morning we got an outage notification with an affected users count so big I had to copy and paste the number into a spreadsheet and set commas on to make sure I was reading it correctly. The entire server farm had crashed. It took several hours before it was up again, and days before everyone who could get their mail back were able to do so. Thousands of people lost the entire contents of their accounts. Months later we were still getting enquiries for help from people who just couldn't bear to think they'd lost all their mail.

Remember how "internet appliances" tanked? This is kind of the same thing all over again, except now we have Web 2.0 so the performance of the applications is at least bearable.

So what to do?

The cloud has a lot of advantages. I'm using it to publish this very blog. The difference is that I have set up my blog to e-mail me a copy of this post when I publish it. That means I'll have two copies: one here on the blog and one in my e-mail. Needless to say, I am one of those people who downloads their e-mail locally, even though all my accounts are through webmail services. That means I'll have a copy of this blog with two backups: one in my webmail and one on my local hard drive. I'll admit I don't back up as often as I should, but I do pull the external hard drive out often enough that I have a decent backup of my machines' drives. I also do mini backups (mostly of my writing stuff) on SD cards.

There are much more rigorous solutions out there, but hopefuly that gives you some ideas for your own backup plans. It's fun to be amongst the clouds, but we all have to get down to earth sooner or later.