The cloud is more than just someone else’s computer

“The cloud is just someone else’s computer” is a common phrase in tech circles. An otherwise excellent article last week on opened with this line: “A personal web server is ‘the cloud,’ except you own and control it as opposed to a large corporation.” Let me be unambiguous here: that’s bullshit.

The context of the “someone else’s computer” saying is generally one of data ownership. Why let someone else own your data when you can own it yourself? I’m sympathetic to that point, but it glosses over a very questionable assumption. Namely, that people have the skills and desire to run the services themselves. That may be true in the tech sector, but it’s certainly not going to be true in the population at large.

What’s even more frustrating is the comparison of a Raspberry Pi to a multi-replica distributed environment. A Raspberry Pi has no redundancy, so if a component fails, you’re out of luck until you can replace it. If your house floods, sorry about your data. Granted, you can address these issues yourself by having redundant hardware and an offsite copy, but the effort goes up dramatically with each layer of protection you build in. Maybe it’s worth the effort to you. And maybe you have the skills necessary to do it. Good for you.

It’s absolutely a good thing to make sure people are aware of the costs and benefits of any technology solution. But one of the benefits of cloud offerings is that some portion of the stack is maintained by competent professionals that can aggregate the demands of individual customers to build a pretty robust and reliable offering. You know why it’s big news when Amazon Web Services has a major outage? 1. Because it’s rare. 2. Because their services are good enough that a lot of people have said “it doesn’t make sense for us to do this ourselves.”

I liken “the cloud is just someone else’s computer” to saying “the grocery store is just someone else’s farm”.

2 thoughts on “The cloud is more than just someone else’s computer

  1. (Assuming we’re talking about a public cloud.) Hmmm… I’m not sure I completely agree. There are risks to self-hosting but they are, in many cases, similar to the risks of having someone else host your data. Availability is not guaranteed once you add the Internet to the mix, anyway, but you would have control over parts of your availability by self-hosting, specifically the availability of your data to you. Your argument gets much more difficult when you try to control confidentiality and integrity in the public cloud.

    I would also disagree with saying AWS is good enough that we shouldn’t do this ourselves. Usually this is a delusional thought based around the short term cost of doing it correctly in the first place.

    If companies start valuing their customer’s data they will start valuing their own infrastructure more.

  2. My argument isn’t that public cloud offerings are inherently superior, it’s that they’re not equivalent to slapping a disk on a small computer in your basement and calling it a day. There are a lot of tradeoffs to be made. Do you make your network gear because your switch vendor might have firmware that’s sending your packets somewhere? At some point, you make a decision to trust a vendor. Where you draw that line varies based on the context.

    Data ownership and control is important, but “the cloud is just someone else’s computer” doesn’t do anything to help people make that choice. If anything, it harms a person’s ability to make a reasoned decision by actively ignoring potentially-important considerations.

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