The other day I attended a presentation by someone who works for Google Sites, the new incarnation of JotSpot. He told a story about how he’d dropped his laptop and had to replace it, but it didn’t matter, because the presentation was “in the cloud” and he could get to it from any computer that had an Internet connection.
In this case, “in the cloud” means that it’s on servers at Google. More generally, the phrase refers to data stored on hosted applications. I’m not sure where clouds come into it; somehow I think of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle and probability clouds, but that’s probably me mis-remembering high school math and science. Naturally, if you’re sitting at a computer in your home or office and your data lives on a server at Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, WordPress.com, Typepad, or somewhere like that, then there’s a lot of information moving back and forth whenever you edit those documents, and some of it gets transmitted by satellite through literal clouds.
Anyway, the etymology doesn’t matter for the purposes of this backup reminder. What matters is that even the storage and processing capacity of personal computers increases, hosted services proliferate, meaning that more and more people keep quite a bit of data “in the cloud.”
We talked a few Reminders ago about how hard it can be to back up your data if some of it is in Facebook and some on TypePad and some in your Google Reader account and some in your Yahoo! Mail account and so on. But there’s also a positive side to not storing data on your own computer. The server rooms at Google, Yahoo!, and your own web hosting company are almost always better designed to resist theft, fire, and hardware failure than what you have at home. Data centers have security guards, sprinkler systems, and Redundant Arrays of Independent Disks locked into air-conditioned cages—much tougher for someone to walk off with than your laptop.
On the other hand, if you get cut off from your Internet connection for some reason, you can’t get to any of your data. Back when I was in college, I used the university mainframe for word-processing, e-mail, and chat. (Swatting a fly with a sledgehammer, anyone?) The computer center was full of “dumb terminals:” screens and keyboards designed to let you log into the mainframe, wherever it was, and use the programs it ran. If you wanted your own copy of anything from the mainframe, you had to ask for a tape of it. (I never did, which I sometimes regret, except that I doubt I could ever have gotten the data off it.) If you wanted to print something, you sent a command to the laser printer and then went to the print window to pick it up in an hour or so.
And if the mainframe went down, there would be a few dozen students sitting around in the computer center, and more scattered across the campus, who were unable to do any work at all. (The first thing to do when walking into the computer center was to look at the handwritten status board to see whether it said “Up and Running.”)
Some of today’s hosted services do let you work offline, and then sync up as soon as they have a connection. But before you decide to keep all your data online, you need to be sure you can get to it when you need to. That almost certainly means having more than one way to get online.
And, of course, you have to be willing to expose that data to the people who work for Google, Yahoo!, and the like. Google probably knows more about us than we know about ourselves already, but that doesn’t mean we want to turn everything over to them. (Are they reading your mail? Probably not, but they’re sharing a lot of information about your online behavior.)
It can be a sensible precaution to keep very little data on any device that’s at frequent risk of being lost, stolen, dropped, or having coffee spilled on it, but that’s not the same as putting all of your data online and using your $3000 Vaio as a dumb terminal. If you’re going to do that, you might as well get a $300 ASUS Eee instead.