The Two Giants - the Amazon and Google cloud problem

Amazon and Google run our critical cloud infrastructure but can switch it off at any time. What's your plan when the cloud goes down?

Cloud

Photo: Oryctes (Some rights reserved)

1. The cloud used to be called floppy disks

We need the cloud.

Back in the stone ages (i.e. when I attended University), I worked at the University information technology services department. Our brief was to solve any and all technology problems of our University staff members and students. And their friends and family. Basically, we helped anyone who asked.

It was both stupid and glorious. We fixed printers. We helped out with crazy programming assignments. We diagnosed weird email problems over the phone. We fixed Microsoft Word formatting, and helped with Excel formulas. We pulled computers apart and put them together again. We explained how email worked. And what this new "internet" thing is. Yes I am old.

But the floppy disks. That is what stuck with me. In those days, if you wanted to read email, you installed an email program on a floppy disk. And all your emails were also stored on that floppy disk. I bet you can see where this story is going ...

Three times during my stint in information technology services, PhD candidates handed me a floppy disk containing the only copy of their PhD thesis. And the floppy disk was broken. Each time I managed to retrieve the entire file, or at least the text of the thesis. But for many other students and staff who came to us with broken floppy disks, their assignments were irretrievably lost.

2. Don't run your own personal cloud

It was around this time that we (or at least I - maybe I am slow) realised that we need to store our personal electronic files securely. And the same logic applies to photos now that we have switched from film to digital photos, and now that we take many many more photos.

It is actually very difficult to securely store our files. Let's use email as an example. email is the most important internet application. Do you host your own email server? I used to be responsible for running email servers for 100+ users and let me tell you, even at that small scale, it is very very stressful worrying about 24x7x365 uptime. And you will never ever be forgiven if you lose the emails of your users.

Therefore, these days we, quite sensibly, let technology companies run our mail severs for us. Doing it yourself is dangerous and therefore not realistic.

3. So we rely on cloud providers ... that can switch off the cloud at any time

Google (gmail) and Amazon (aws) can switch off these cloud services at any time. I am not saying that they are malicious. Quite the contrary. Both are fantastic companies. And we need their services. But both companies deliberately and quite sensibly (for them) maintain the flexibility to "decommission" technology services whenever they want.

Because if you live in the western world, then your personal email is probably stored by Google (or one of its competitors). And one way or another, everyone relies on Amazon. As Benedict Evans says (in Losing my Amazon Religion):

And to be sure, Amazon has had doubters from the beginning: few gave the company a chance when it started, and even fewer thought it would survive the bursting of the bubble. And yet, today Amazon is the king of e-commerce, at least in the United States, and the clear leader in cloud services, and now they are making a big push into digital content and devices.

Amazon has an enormous global fleet of data centers, and supplies infrastructure that is critical for:

  • a significant proportion of large companies (in the western world at least); and
  • the suppliers of these large companies.

For example, Amazon runs the servers used for everything from online storage services to services used by governments, financial institutions and airlines.

4. What can we do?

There is nothing we can do. At least about companies that we rely on but do not control. If those companies are not prepared for the day that Amazon and Google switch off their critical cloud services.

However, we can do two things to protect ourselves (and our companies) from the disappearing cloud:

  • Have a plan if the cloud service or company disappears overnight. For example, can another supplier provide the same service? Or can we run the service in-house?
  • Keep up-to-date copies of all of our data that is stored by our cloud providers. Preferably on our own physical infrastructure (or at least with an independent third party).

While these requirements may seem simple, they are often complicated to implement, particularly for large companies.

But don't blame the giants. They are happy to help. Just don't count on them sticking around forever.


This post originally appeared at iainmclaren.com. Thanks to Josh Morris for reviewing an early draft. These opinions are mine. They are not necessarily those of my employer.