Trusting your data to the cloud can be Danger-ous

Users of Microsoft’s Sidekick smartphone experienced an outage early this month that nine days later turned out to be catastrophic. While its not the first time a communications platform has experienced downtime, this time it’s different. This time users didn’t just lose service, they lost access to all their data. Many lost all of the data itself. Permanently.

The outage is the talk of tech sites, blogs and forums and raises what many believe are serious questions about the future cloud computing.

The Sidekick is a smartphone developed by Microsoft-owned subsidiary Danger, Inc. and sold by T-Mobile. User data such as calender entries, photos, address books and to-do lists are all stored on Microsoft Danger servers utilizing a Storage Area Network.

On October 1, 2009 Danger’s servers went down, taking user’s data off line. According to some reports Microsoft was performing an upgrade on its SAN when something went terribly wrong. At first it was believed to be only a temporary outage and by October 8 access to most of the services was restored. However much of the data was not and two days later Microsoft sent an e-mail to users and a notice was posted on T-Mobile’s community forums admitting their data was likely gone for good.

The reason? Microsoft did not back up the servers prior to the upgrade.

Rumour has it the snafu is being blamed on Hitachi , who Microsoft allegedly hired to perform the upgrade. Whether this is true or not is irrelevant to users now. The fact is, Microsoft lost their customers’ personal data and there was no backup. The damage was done.

The irony of all this is that, overall, the entity responsible for this epic fail is Microsoft, a company that should know better. Backup, backup, backup. Isn’t this something Redmond has drummed into our heads over the years? Of all companies to trust with our data shouldn’t they be the company most responsible to manage it?

Now, granted, Microsoft’s business model was not built on cloud computing. Their core business model is based on desktop computing, selling operating systems and software that reside directly on the desktop.  In fact, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer has stated in the past that he doesn’t think the public is ready for working in the cloud and to a certain extent he has a point. In spite of Ballmer’s rhetoric Microsoft enter the arena anyway but it seems as if it did so only half-heartedly, a move that was likely made more for the sake of keeping up with Google than actually doing anything innovative in the cloud itself.

This brings up the most important question. Is cloud computing ready for prime time and is it really safe to trust it with your data? This isn’t a new discussion at all, but after such a massive and destructive event as the Sidekick outage it does remind us how important and controversial a question it is.

For instance, many tech business owners, myself included, have been hesitant to promote or sell cloud-based solutions to our customers simply based on the uncertainty as to whether or not the cloud can be trusted.

Take back-up solutions, for instance. There are a number of companies who offer them today and there are a myriad of opportunities to partner with these companies for recurring sales revenue. However, no matter how secure the data is, anything in the cloud is potentially hackable, an inconvenient truth that, unfortunately, has already been proven time and time again.

Aside from the security aspect of placing a data backup in an environment that is just “out there”, one that is essentially virtual and could potentially be accessed by anyone, anywhere at anytime, there is the aspect of reliability as well. Anyone can claim 99.9 percent uptime, but that percentage is relative depending on the length of time against which that percentage is measured. . 1 percent of a day is not very long at all. .1 percent of a year or two is something else entirely.

What if a small business customer backed up all their data to a backup service and that service had a Sidekick event? What if that data backup was unrecoverable? The potential effects could be catastrophic, not only for the customer who lost their data but for the service provider who recommended and sold that service to their customer. Is the loss of that customer and the potential damage to the service provider’s reputation worth risking for an extra buck or two each month?

Yes, it sounds overly paranoid of course, but these are questions some service providers ask and among the reasons why some may not recommend or offer such services to their customers. While It may seem like an overreaction, it could happen and it already did happen to Sidekick users, only worse, because it wasn’t a mere data backup that was gone, it was the data itself that was destroyed.  

Considering the fact that Microsoft purchased a company called Danger and never changed the name was probably not the best move in terms of marketing or building trust in a brand. Since the outage, the name itself now carries a whole new meaning. Seriously, a huge behemoth called Microsoft owns a company called Danger which put all its user’s data in real danger by not backing up its own servers and subsequently lost it all, providing a reason for those who are not fans of cloud computing to bolster their argument that trusting your data to the cloud can be Danger-ous. Now, that’s ironic.

Incidentally, Danger initially launched the Sidekick on October 1, 2002, exactly seven years to the day of the outage.





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