Cloud Computing for Home Has Huge Problems

We’re getting lots of examples of Cloud Computing for use at home these days. Examples include Apple‘s new iCloud, the Siri digital assistant built into the iPhone 4S, Google Documents and GMail, and cloud backup, like Mozy, Carbonite, and the one I use, CrashPlan. All of these store your data in the cloud (on servers somewhere on the Internet) and provide you services using that data. Cloud Computing means you don’t have to maintain infrastructure (servers and programs and such) and can use the services from nearly anywhere. It’s great for businesses that need to scale services quickly. So what’s the problem for home users?

The problem is that home Internet access isn’t up to the task of supporting the data intensive cloud services, and, even if it were capable, capacity limits put in place by our service providers will severely curtail the cloud’s usefulness. The examples below range from annoying to potentially catastrophic. For cloud computing to work for average people, these problems must be fixed. If not, a lot of people are going to have big problems, as described below.

Cloud backup is a great way to make sure your data is backed up to a remote location that will survive even if your house is burglarized or burns down. You run a program on your computer and it backs your data up to the cloud whenever you have a network connection. This means you always have a backup in case of disaster. The first problem anyone using these tools encounters is that it takes weeks to make that initial backup. That’s right – the upload speed from our homes is very slow, usually on the order of one or two million bits per second, and I think the cloud backup providers throttle even further, so the upload speed is typically not at your bandwidth limit. Once the initial backup is made, future backups are incremental, only sending changed data, so are usually fast. Problems can occur for people that use virtual machines (Parallels or VMWare, for example), because the virtual disks they use tend to be many GB, so just booting a VM guarantees a significant upload, even if only changed parts of the disk are sent. Everybody is getting better and better digital cameras all the time, so more and larger photos are being stored on hard drives and they also need to be backed up, along with our iTunes files and digital movie copies, etc. Things are pretty ugly, because even average users will soon have hundreds of GB of data that they care about and don’t want to lose.

All of the above is annoying, because our home Internet infrastructure stinks, but it gets worse: If you have a failure or loss and need to restore that backup of say 200GB, your Internet Service Provider (ISP) may prevent it. Even with the faster download speeds, such an undertaking will take days, but with capacity caps that are now being put into place by cable companies and other ISPs, we may be blocked when we hit that cap, or at least significantly slowed. Yes, I know some of the backup providers have services where for an outrageous fee, they will mail you DVDs or maybe a hard drive with your data, but that’s on top of the usual monthly charge. So if your MacBook gets stolen, not only will you need to buy a new one, but you’ll need to pay to get your files back or be blocked by your ISP. Not very comforting. Perhaps cloud backup isn’t as good a deal as we thought and we all should keep local backups as well (yes, I know that’s a good idea, but not nearly as low impact and convenient as cloud backup).

Apple’s iCloud is a new player in this game, and it will cause lots of trouble. One feature, PhotoStream, automatically uploads your photos to the cloud from your iPhone and then down to iPhoto. It really works and is surprisingly nifty. It took more than a GB of photos from my wife’s new iPhone 4S, sent them to the cloud, and the next day, they were in her iPhoto. That’s pretty handy! But wait, that means it uploaded a GB of photos to the cloud. Then it downloaded them again. Then iPhoto uploaded them again (at least I think that’s what it was doing when it was hogging my internet connection all day). So we’re aiming for those ISP-enforced capacity caps without even knowing it.

Even the nifty Siri assistant built into the iPhone 4S uploads the commands to the cloud for interpretation (and the results may require internet data too). So the data plan from your phone company, unless it is unlimited, will be slowly eaten away by constant Siri use. It may not be much, but it isn’t nothing.

In short, there are companies selling us cloud services for the home that will be strongly affected by limitations imposed by our network connections and by our ISPs. Before long, these competing interests will collide and we, the consumers, will be screwed. We will have to pay more if we want to use these very handy cloud services.

I have some (not nearly comprehensive) suggestions on how to avoid such a crisis.

  1. ISPs should track data usage as cloud service usage grows and adjust their capacity caps upwards as needed so even above average users never hit them. The ISPs always say the caps only affect the top 1% or less, so they should keep it that way.
  2. Allow occasional exceptions to the capacity caps. If someone calls and says they are restoring a cloud backup, lift the cap that month, as long as it is a rare event.
  3. The services should allow preferences to be set to make sure we don’t upload or download too much so we trigger these caps.

Essentially, these cloud computing services will transform all of us into heavy data users on our networks, so it will no longer be people downloading porn or pirating movies or songs that are the big bandwidth hogs, but ordinary people that take photos and movies with their phones and back up their media libraries. No longer will the ISPs be able to claim that it is only abusers that are using all their bandwidth, because it might be all of us, but just happening behind our backs by automatic programs accessing the cloud for us, but without us explicitly initiating it.

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