Can we really trust the cloud?

Software architects like to shorthand the spaghetti of interconnected networks that make up the Internet as “the cloud” — an amorphous entity, somewhere distant, that you don’t need to fuss over.

But events around the world have brought cloud advocates back to Earth. From Egypt and Canada to Capitol Hill and beyond, we’ve been reminded that what we call the cloud is just a bunch of computers, in buildings, tied together by fiber-optic cables, and ruled by other human beings.

Just like the rest of the Internet, cloud computing — services run on remote servers and deliver files and computing power over the Internet — are vulnerable to the whims of regulators and governments. Residents of Egypt learned that lesson the hard way when the government abruptly shut off most Internet service providers in a frantic attempt to gain control of its rioting populace after rising unrest.

With a flick of a switch (or, in reality, a few phone calls) most services were crippled or disabled in Egypt. Twitter and Facebook were gone. All that information stored in the cloud on services like Dropbox and Box.net was suddenly unavailable. Salesforce, which has long championed the cause of Web-based software with its “no software” sloganeering, suddenly seemed less visionary.

In at least one country, the cloud, which analysts and businesses have been evangelizing for years now, was vaporized.

Companies have been marching into the cloud for years, whether through storing massive amounts of information or using high-powered servers to deliver better performance at a lower price. What seems to be lost in all the excitement is that companies still have to connect to the Internet for the cloud’s magic to work — and pay someone for all that data and bandwidth. Those same companies that are the gatekeepers to the Internet are the cloud’s gatekeeers as well. They can impose rules — or have rules imposed on them. And those rules can change, often abruptly.

If Egypt’s woes weren’t enough, some new laws passed in Canada are going to enforce bandwidth caps for broadband access. Bell Canada, the “incumbent” provider, can now meter independent Internet service providers using its copper wiring to homes and businesses, and charge any independent ISP that wants to provide more bandwidth. The after-effects range from some Canadians losing the chance to download large games through digital distribution services like Steam to inadvertently using up an entire month’s worth of bandwidth on Skype.

Suddenly, an entire consumer market has a whole new set of questions to ask cloud service providers. Take Dropbox, for example. It makes it easy to upload files to the cloud and access them as needed. But if a user can only afford 25 gigabytes of data each month, that “automagical” service is now a liability that restricts the rest of their usage — which can range from entertainment like video or games to mission-critical applications like voice-over-Internet calls.

At the same time, there’s concern over a proposed bill in the U.S. Congress that would give the government an Internet “kill switch.” Sen. Joe Lieberman is sponsoring the bill as a way to protect U.S. infrastructure from an attack that would cause irreparable harm. Lieberman has published a fact sheet covering a number of the points of contention surrounding the bill in an attempt to dismiss some fears about the government “taking over the Internet.”

It stretches credulity that a kill switch in the U.S. would be used for something as sinister as quelling public unrest — at least as the actual bill is currently formulated. But it would give the U.S. government the ability to, by extension, regulate parts of the Internet. That could come down to disabling some cloud services, if it turned out they had security flaws that, say, opened up the U.S.’s energy grid to cyber attacks.

The news from the past weekend has served as a huge reality check for cloud computing. It isn’t something amorphous, miles away from reach. It’s a very real service sitting in some very real data centers across the world and connected by, you guessed it, very real cables. And, just like everything else, it can be shut down, regulated and otherwise subjected to the whims of those in power.

Recent events don’t spell the death of the cloud. I won’t trade my Google Docs, Box.net, OnLive or Pandora accounts in just yet. But it does remind us that the cloud is of earth, not ether.

Front photo via Cometstarmoon on Flickr

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