Can we really use the cloud?

March 31, 2013

One of the things I think about every so often is whether we can make much use of cloud computing (by which I mean external cloud providers, not trying to set up some sort of large-scale university cloud or virtualization environment). Although I may be suffering from a lack of imagination, so far I keep coming up mostly empty.

The problem is that most of our services are internally facing; they're things we provide to our local users. I see the cloud as great for externally facing services (things like websites that the outside world uses) and things that sit behind them to support them, but this is mostly not what we have. Shipping local file storage and so on off to the cloud seems a little counter-productive and also bandwidth (and latency) limited. Something like IMAP email could in theory be hosted in the cloud instead of locally but currently it's entangled with our local file storage; detaching it would have various awkward consequences that would be annoying to the users.

(One argument is that people are already implicitly moving to the cloud as it is, by shifting email to GMail and storing stuff in Dropbox and so on. But even if they are, I don't think we can displace high quality services like GMail and Dropbox with our own efforts.)

One issue for remoting some services off into the cloud is how we deal with interactions with local fileservers and login services. Local fileservers are important for local heavy-duty computing, so how do we bridge them and either remote servers in the cloud using the local fileservice or even remote fileservice (for example if we pushed our web server into the cloud)? I suppose we could nail up IPSec tunnels and the like, but that feels both fragile and worrisome from a security perspective (assuming that NFS even works very well over WAN latencies).

(I'm assuming that issues of cost, network reliability, and any legal problems can all be magically dealt with. This is not necessarily realistic (and some of them definitely are concerns), but the general enthusiasm for clouds basically handwaves them all anyways.)

Written on 31 March 2013.
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Last modified: Sun Mar 31 00:59:41 2013
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