The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life
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Tuesday, February 26, 2013
Current Affairs ... Technology ...

I’m probably into the final decade of my working life, so I’m not trying all that hard anymore to keep up with modern business trends. Nevertheless, I was chatting with the IT director at my job the other day, and we started talking about cloud computing. Our employer (a mid-sized local government agency) does not yet utilize cloud services, but the IT guy wants us to. I asked him, just why do we need to buy our computing services from “the cloud”. The IT guy in question is not very good at giving concise, relevant answers. And once again, he went off on one of his rambling monologues (sort of like my blog entries!). But somewhere in his speech, I heard a sentence that actually summed it up.

In a nutshell: my employer invested over a quarter million $$ into servers and enterprise software for e-mail, file storage and exchange, anti-virus, and other network management functions. This is the backbone of our data system, to which about 400 desktop computers are connected. We pay additional on-going sums for all the wiring within our main office, and to rent T-1 connection lines between our headquarters and 5 remote office locations. There are further fees for equipment repair, software maintenance, and the in-house staff needed to keep the servers healthy.

Going to the cloud means renting all of this capacity from some big company with a huge server bank, and connecting to it with individual high-speed internet connections from every local site. As such, we could do away with the server banks and related upkeep contracts, as well as the internal manpower needed to maintain the servers. We would be charged for the rental costs of the remote server capacity and software usage, and our internet connection costs would go up. But arguably, we would save money overall by eliminating the 5-year capital replacement of the servers, along with annual upkeep contracts and labor costs, plus intra-office wiring and connection fees.

The IT guy was unsure if the cost benefits were real at this point; he said that the cloud is still growing and that its costs may still be relatively high. But they should come down in the future, such that we will soon be better off using “the cloud”. At present, more and more big companies and government agencies are “going cloud”, and as costs come down, even mid-size and small organizations like ours will join the trend. In the next 5 to 7 years, on-site servers will become things of the past in most offices. America will do all its computing and file storage in “the cloud”, at least for business purposes.

Thus, another big change is coming up for America (it’s already well underway, actually; I’m only now starting to realize it). This all sounds great; a simpler, cheaper, more flexible and efficient way of doing business. But being an old guy who has seen my share of rainy days, I’m trained to look out for dark sides. Is there a dark lining to this new “cloud” that our country will soon depend upon?

Yes. First off, we will become more and more dependent upon a few huge, centralized server facilities and the internet high-speed connection systems that make their use possible. The internet infrastructure arguably is getting better and is highly redundant; it is not overly-vulnerable to a terrorist attack or physical collapse, say because of a flood or other natural disaster. (Although, there is still much worry about what happens if the sun every has a real doozie of a solar flare . . .) By contrast, the cloud server facilities and their software operations could be sitting ducks. The economic incentive is towards bigness and concentration. And physical concentration implies vulnerability.

We are already very dependent in our daily lives on computers and data networks, much more so than most of us realize. Our economy would stop running if there was a massive stoppage or disconnection of our overall computing system. Stores would soon become empty, goods would not be delivered, critical services would cease, water systems and power grids would go down, gasoline shortages would become rampant, phones would not operate. Life could get very ugly and nasty if we had to go without our computer networks for more than a few days.

But aside from a possible solar flare, and the (hopefully) remote possibility that some national enemy could explode a high-altitude electromagnetic pulse bomb (North Korea is making real advances in long-range missiles and small nuclear devices sufficient for EMP damage) — or a terrorist group could develop and detonate a series of non-nuclear EMP bombs near critical computer and electronic centers — what is the danger? Well, aside from the possibilities named above . . . which aren’t as remote as most of us might hope . . . there is the possibility of high-level hacking into our critical server systems. Obviously, the government and big business will require strong protection schemes to guard against network intrusions by geeky teenagers out to fool around. But what about sophisticated attacks orchestrated with governmental resources? Is that just a science fiction nightmare?

There are reports that this is already happening. I have seen a number of articles in the past few weeks about organized sophisticated hacking that appears to be sponsored by the Chinese government. Obviously it’s a murky question right now, as no nation is going to intentionally probe American government and business computers and take credit for it. But there are strong suspicions about a sophisticated People’s Liberation Army group with offices in Manhattan (Unit 61398) that appears to have initiated a regular course of spying and network invasions against US defense networks. There is also the Chinese state-sponsored “Comment Crew” that is suspected of infiltrating US networks that manage electrical power grids, gas lines and waterworks. They also reportedly had a go at Coca-Cola’s main computers.

I would postulate that as our military and economic digital infrastructure transitions from distributed on-site servers to concentrated cloud-based operations, the safety factor that comes from redundancy and wide deployment will be lost. We will gain efficiency, but trade off safety. Sure, these concentrated centers will be protected by the best anti-intrusion systems. But offense usually trumps defense; fences, walls and moats don’t have a good track record in stopping a motivated enemy, and I don’t think that cyber-fences are going to do any better. Once a hacker team manages to get past the protection ring, it will be open-season on the huge cloud-processing centers. The specter of a cyber “Pearl Harbor” or 9-11 is becoming more real.

This may be a prime example of the increasing vulnerability of our highly-automated and highly-interconnected commercial and infrastructure system. And it’s more than just the known risks increasing — even worse are the unknown risks, which seem to become more prominent as system complexity increases (i.e., the ‘black swans’). As a song sung by Jackson Brown goes “don’t think it won’t happen just because it hasn’t happened yet”. Maybe we need to get our heads out of “the cloud”.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:04 pm      

  1. Jim, I’m not sure I understand “the cloud” entirely, but I think I’ve got a good idea of it. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head when it comes to safety issues.

    I find myself wondering about the individual’s privacy. While only big (or smaller) business would likely be involved in using “the cloud”, it is precisely the information that those companies hold on individuals that worries me when “the cloud” is mentioned. For instance, banks, health care companies (for 2 examples) carry a great deal of private information on the individual. How easily that information could be at risk.

    It seems “the cloud” is even more “big brother-y” than Orwell had originally imagined. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — February 27, 2013 @ 2:26 pm

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