The 'Cloud' Makes Us All Fish Food

June 20, 2011
Daniel Essin, MA, MD

Even if the cloud was perfect from a technical perspective it raises some important questions and now is the time to think about them before many have taken the plunge. Is the cloud approach and everything that it implies good for the individual? Is it good for your practice?

Within the technical sphere, cloud computing has been the hot topic. Steve Jobs’ announcement of iCloud has grabbed the attention of the public. An email I received recently regarding an EHR project included "This is as exciting for me as iCloud!!!!!" Parenthetically, it also generated some excitement at iCloud Communications who filed a trademark infringement suit against Apple on June 9. Cloud computing definitely has a place but the sudden, aggressive promotion of cloud services to the public has some of disturbing aspects.

The first is technical - it promises a level of security and availability that cannot be delivered today. The second is monetary - it's all about turning us into cash cows.

From a technical standpoint, one thing that makes the Internet so useful is that it is highly, but not completely, reliable. The reliability that is achieved is not the result of planning. It is an emergent property that results from a particular world view and a set of intentionally limited requirements. It functions as well as it does precisely because it is loosely coupled and opportunistic, i.e. it does the best it can with the available resources and keeps trying if necessary. This makes it highly reliable in the sense that if there is a route by which you can be reached, the packets intended for you will eventually arrive. It does not guarantee delivery (the path may not exist due to equipment failure), it does not guarantee delivery at any particular time, and it does not guarantee absolute security because many third parties handle each packet and all may not be completely trustworthy.

Vendors of computing services would like to convey the impression that they can offer higher reliability and availability than you can achieve with your own computer but this is illusory because they can’t escape the fundamental properties of the internet. In addition to occasional Internet outages, even the best managed services cannot avoid internal mishaps.

The financial aspect merits contemplation. In 1987 I attended an educational/sales seminar in Cambridge, Mass., presented by John Dovovan, a prominent computer scientist, MIT professor, and entrepreneur (who later turned out to be a rather peculiar fellow.) During that seminar he made a strong and insightful statement about how to make money from the information processing business (or any business) in the future: “Move up the food chain.” Stop building one-off highly customized solutions and commodity products and instead, attach your business to the flows of information in such a way that you collect a fee from each transaction. As the transaction volume grows, so will your net worth.

Think about who is making money today - your cell phone carrier and your cable provider, to name a few. Apple is making more money from music download micro-transactions than Microsoft is making selling operating systems. Google became a $133 billion company from ad clicks. Richard Pryor got rich in Superman III by grabbing the fractional pennies from millions of bank transactions. This is why the big players want to get you addicted to the cloud. It’s to their advantage to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative (thank you Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer.)

Even if the cloud was perfect from a technical perspective it raises some important questions and now is the time to think about them before many have taken the plunge. Is the cloud approach and everything that it implies good for the individual? Is it good for your practice? It will most probably result in a loss of personal control. It stifles creativity and individual expression by offering a limited number of predefined options and a remote, unreachable and uninterested management that has no time for individual requests or preferences. This has been one of the gripes for years about Apple by non-fanatics. One reason the PC has flourished over the years is the degree to which it accommodates, and even encourages, individual customization and extension. The cloud runs in the opposite direction. It takes the software and the choices out of your hands. As things are evolving, it wants to take the hardware out of your control by making it a passive box that will convey information from the cloud to your screen.

So when they say every cloud has a silver lining, I’m thinking that they meant gold. Caveat emptor.

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