Avoiding a Cloud Computing Armageddon

Cloud computing is all the rage today, with everyone from the U.S. Federal government to Apple herding us into a brave new world of remotely hosted data and services.  There are, of course, many advantages to the cloud concept.  But as usual, this new IT architecture has some inherent and serious risks that cloud proponents hope potential customers will not dwell on.

There's nothing new about that, of course - except for the stakes.  Innovation usually outruns caution and comprehensive consideration of concerns like safety and unintended consequences.  But if we want to put all of our computing resources and data into one bucket, we had better make damn sure that it's got a pretty strong bottom.

Here's a nightmare scenario of what could happen otherwise.  And it's not pretty.

        A look into the future:  As the third decade of the 21st century dawned, it seemed that humanity had finally embraced the need to solve its energy and global warming crises. The watershed moment had arrived in 2013, when virtually all developed and developing nations at last signed a global treaty imposing aggressive penalties for failures to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

That accord would have been impossible absent the multiple disasters of 2011, the year in which oil first reached $200 a barrel and stayed there, as one Arab nation after another was wracked by civil unrest. Pipelines, refineries and port facilities were sabotaged, and even destroyed, as one side or the other gained or lost ground.

The other motivating force was the months-long cascade of disasters at the Fukishima Dai-Ichi nuclear reactor complex in Japan. Perhaps the result would have been different if the enormous earthquake and tsunami had affected only a single reactor instead of six. Emergency staffs performed heroically, but just as the situation seemed at last to have been brought under control, a devastating fire erupted that once more exposed the fuel rods in three of the reactors. For months thereafter, whenever the situation in one reactor was brought under control, a new aftershock, explosion, fire, or radiation leak would set the process back in another, keeping the story in the news for most of the rest of the year.

In Europe and the United States, the possibility of starting new, or of renewing the licenses of existing, nuclear reactors evaporated. The power of the Green Party in many EU countries surged, and in the United States, the specter of an "oil shock" that would tip the nation back into recession led to a once in a lifetime bipartisan commitment to accelerate the development of renewable energy and the reduction of energy consumption.

Concurrently, a new business model called "cloud computing" was coming into its own, and millions of new servers were brought on line as a growing flood of public and private sector entities moved their software and data to third-party hosts that maintained them for a fee. Predictably, the IT industry rapidly consolidated as data hosting became commoditized and profit margins narrowed. After ten years, a handful of companies was hosting the data and software of most private and public enterprises.

With energy costs at all time highs and the percentage of national energy demands allocable to IT rising rapidly, the new cloud provider giants built enormous server farms adjacent to lowest-cost generation facilities. Government subsidies, tax breaks and social pressure all ensured that these new facilities would be the most "green" enterprises ever built. By 2020, astronauts circling the globe could easily pick out server farms the size of small cities, each situated next to a renewable energy source: hydroelectric dams in Canada, solar installations in the southwest, wind farms in Texas and off the shores of New England. The same revolution transformed the IT and power infrastructures of Europe and the Pacific Rim as well.

Governments, universities and public companies all now had private clouds. With the rise of the "key chest" model of media ownership, individuals relied on remote hosting for not only their audio, video and graphic files, but for their personal documents as well. Internet and wireless telephony had now almost totally replaced traditional land-line phones. Happily, the lessons of the Japanese tsunami had been learned, and all of this data and software was redundantly hosted in at least two locations, with automatic "failover" protocols in place.

Nor did the hosting of data end there. After Congress resolved the copyright ownership of "orphan" works of authorship in 2012, the digitization of the world’s books was completed. Even the largest libraries began pulping all but volumes of the greatest historical significance. Budgets previously spent on bricks, mortar, shelving and physical books were now spent on acquiring access rights and the means to deliver millions of remote, digitized works to the eReaders of library patrons everywhere.

With the costs and benefits of central hosting of information so compelling, local storage of information had become as rare as an AOL dial up account. Experts estimated that c. 85% of all of the world’s important data and software was now hosted in twenty-three gigantic data farms that collectively consumed a spectacular 9% of the global output of electricity. Together, this new system of instant, global, open access was widely and justifiably acknowledged to be one of the great achievements of the modern world.

        9/11/21: Within minutes of each other on the twentieth anniversary of the 9/11/01 terrorist attacks, twenty-three individuals scattered around the United States, Europe, China, Japan, South Korea and Australia put their plan into operation. This time, instead of boarding four commercial airliners, each fired up the engine of an ultralight kit aircraft that could be legally flown without obtaining a pilot’s license. Some took off from dirt roads in the desert, others from pastures. Naturally, none was legally required to file a flight plan, and all flew scarcely a hundred feet above the ground. Each was accompanied by a package about the size and shape of a piece of roll aboard luggage, courtesy of an illicit arms dealer in a former Soviet republic. On each package was a digital readout, synchronously counting down to zero.

Not long after, the pilots approached their destinations. Each looked to the readout on his package, and began a gradual ascent, calculated to position his aircraft approximately 1500 feet above one of the massive server farms by the time the countdown reached zero.

At the appointed time, twenty-three Cold War era tactical, battlefield nuclear weapons exploded in blinding flashes of light and energy. Like uncommonly ferocious funeral pyres, the mushroom clouds that roared into the sky marked the annihilation of the collective knowledge of humanity.

In a wink of an eye, the earth had been cleansed of the heresies of modern civilization. The world was once again as Mohammed had known it.

In the first winter that followed, a billion people starved to death.

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If that caught your attention, you can read an in-depth analysis of the issues involved, and a critique of the degree to which the Obama administration’s new cybersecurity plan would address them, in the Feature Article to the last issue of my eJournal, Standards Today.  You can find that article here.

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