The off-again, on-again fate of the social bookmarking service Delicious led to considerable angst among its users, with the discussion among some educational technologists broadening to include all cloud-based services and scenarios of suddenly being without access to mission critical services. After all, many Internet services are free and by definition are going to have unusual or unsure revenue models in the face of ongoing costs such as employees, server space, and software development. Even established Internet giants such as Yahoo!, who acquired Delicious several years ago, find themselves in dire financial conditions, resulting in massive layoffs, selling off assets (as Yahoo! is doing with Delicious), and other belt-tightening measures.
To some people this uncertainty is sufficient to warrant keeping IT services in-house, or perhaps even bringing them back in-house from the cloud. But I am no more or less concerned about the disappearance of a cloud based service than I am of a major catastrophe in our data center that takes out all of our servers. With proper planning you turn total disaster into a major (even minor) inconvenience, which in the world of IT is about as good as it gets.
In a previous post (The Escalating Cost of Google Apps) I pointed out the hidden costs of “free” cloud applications required to make them enterprise worthy. For example, our school uses Google Apps for Education. Did you know that Google does not backup your Google Docs? If you put a doc in the Google Trash and then empty the Trash, the doc is gone and irretrievable.1 Since almost all of my important documents are created and stored in Google Apps, I opted to purchase my own backup solution from Spanning Backup. Google is among the least likely Internet companies to fail (too big to fail?), but it doesn’t back-up your docs files. You have to perform that task yourself! I like the convenience of a completely cloud-to-cloud system rather than chewing up local disk space and increasing network traffic between my school and the Internet.
My point is that cloud applications need to be subjected to the same level of scrutiny of locally hosted solutions, including:
- service levels. Most schools can provide 99% up-time and, since services are running locally and over 10 MB or 100MB Ethernet cables and switches, offer very fast response times. Cloud services should match or exceed that.
- security, including anti-malware. You don’t want computer viruses infecting your cloud documents any more than locally stored documents. Most email systems automatically scan messages and attachments for known viruses. Google Docs scans documents for viruses.
- privacy. A lot of people are concerned about their privacy while using Google. They should be. Google’s privacy policies notwithstanding, they can be changed at a moment’s notice, and there is always the possibility of unauthorized intrusions or even covert mining by the government. But these risks are also inherent in locally hosted solutions.
- back-ups. The Achilles heel of most services is the lack of proper backup of files. On the other hand, Google Docs offers the ability to revert to earlier document versions, which is something not all desktop applications provide. If I had to choose between the two, I’d prefer a full backup solution. Come on Google, do it!
- data export. Once you put your data somewhere, you want to be sure you can get it out again when you need it, and in a form that is useable by other applications.
- support. Another drawback to Cloud services is the lack easily available support. This is not unique free cloud applications. Getting live help for commercial applications can also be problematic unless you are willing to pay extra for it. The quality of online support varies quite a bit. The larger the user community for a given product–FOSS, cloud-based, or commercial–the likely you are to find answers to your questions online.
- green purchasing policies. This may appear to some readers as an odd thing to have on a requirements list, but if your school does not already have such policies (see Green Purchasing Guidelines for Schools) I suggest you look into this. In essence, you want to be doing business with corporations that are consistent with the environmental sustainability goals of your school. In the case of large companies such as Google and Yahoo!, it easy to learn more about their environmental practices. A small company such as Diigo (12 employees according to their web site) does not publish information about their environmental practices.
What am I missing? What other attributes of cloud-based services should schools look for to assure that their school does not suffer should their cloud “evaporate?”
- There is evidence that this is not actually the case, which can be both good and bad. After all, if I deleted a file and I really wanted it deleted, I don’t want a copy of it anywhere. If I deleted it by accident, then I do. There’s a blog post from 2007 that demonstrated that when you delete a Google doc, it is actually simply hidden from view. If this is the case, then that is disturbing. Google should clearly address this and, in fact, allow for secure deletion of trash. ↩