My primary qualm with cloud computing is one of its most fatal (and fundamental) failings, reliance on a third party ‘super’ server. Whilst there is no such thing as a ‘super server’, it is in reality, a large collection of servers within a farm, I don’t think the systems that power a variety of services from email, storage, social networking sites to whole online Operating Systems can be thought of simply as ‘vanilla’ servers. To view them in such a light dangerously understates their potential infrastructural importance.
Despite my reservations, recently I have been using more and more cloud computing services and, you know what… I get what all the fuss is about. It’s easy, simple and for each service you use, it can potentially be one less infrastructural concern to think about. Great, but it (and potentially your data) is also wholly in control of a third party and their fault tolerance infrastructure. Thats not to mention issues of Internet connectivity, traffic shaping and net neutrality.
It was bound to happen sooner or later, now I have a perfect example to hypocritically point to, The LinkUp. I only glanced briefly at the details, but it appears the company hosted data for hundreds of thousands of paying customers. During a migration, they hit a snag and, whilst over half the data is still safe after the service resumed, it is reported that many thousands could have lost everything. What if this happens to Amazon’s S3 service or Google Mail? Cloud services are unlikely to go away and I will continue to use some of them, but I do urge anyone who has a heavy reliance so such systems to seek a failsafe or separate backup form, it all boils down to the old computing concept… common sense.
Microsoft has been making a lot of noise about cloud computing of late (I will talk about my take on cloud computing another time) and it should come as no surprise that they are testing an online storage solution. Perhaps the best known product on the web that allows for remote storage of files and documents is Amazon’s S3 (standing for Simple Storage Service). This coupled with the Jungle disk front-end makes enabled this reasonably priced service from Amazon to be quickly adopted by enthusiasts.
So what is Microsoft doing? Naturally, it is playing to its strengths by tightly integrating this online storage service to the existing Microsoft Live framework which I have never been a fan of. What started off a few years ago as a Live ‘passport’ to enable MSN (Windows Messenger – which I use) and email (hotmail – which I most certainly don’t use) to be integrated in one service. Windows XP was the first Operating System to feature true integration by allowing each user account to associate a .Net Live passport with a user account.
Of late, Microsoft have really stepped up their work on the Live platform and have turned it into a real Web 2.0 fan’s dream. Not only can email be accessed, but a whole load of (Microsoft hopes) Google app-killers such as Photo Gallery, Spaces (myspace style blog) as well as others. Although, the most telling thing about Windows Live Services, is Microsoft’s choice for subdomain : “ideas.live.com” reinforcing (either intentionally or unintentionally) the experimental ‘young-hip’ approach which has served Google so well up to now.
I guess the biggest thing that irkes me about Microsoft Live services, are not the services themselves (which are actually quite good) but the corporate mentality behind them. This is best summed up in the way in which one would set about using one or more of Microsoft’s Live services. For example, I wanted to give Microsoft Live Writer a go to see if it was a more comfortable way of posting to this blog, so I went to the appropriate (the specific writer program page) and selected download. What downloaded was not a setup binary for Writer, but a generic installation program called WLinstaller.exe . This then tried to convince me to change my default search engine to Live Search and set my home page to MSN in Internet Explorer. Good luck with that.
This is what annoys me, unlike a company like Mozilla who would happily provide you the install to any of their free programs on demand, Microsoft try to convert you. Even if you want to install one program then Microsoft will preselect everything including service integrations. That is not to say they do not have good software and services, just their aggressiveness puts me off – I do not install software randomly on my systems and I strongly dislike the principle of bundled crapware.
But anyway, I am getting away from the point. Windows Live SkyDrive is free and offering 5Gb of storage with (presumably) no bandwidth restrictions. The service can be slow in places: creating new folders is sluggish, sometimes taking almost half a minute to allow access into the corresponding dialog. However, Once the folder is created, uploading was fast as was browsing existing folders associated with my Live account. Pictures are automatically viewed with another Microsoft Live Service namely Photo Gallery which allows for thumbnail views of your uploaded images. This is a handy, unobtrusive feature.
What particularly interests me is the way in which you can share files per users. There are three main ways to share files (of any file type), by whitelisted contacts, by the entire Internet or “for your eyes only”. When specifying which contacts have access to your shared files (which you upload) you can add in a type of user privilege system. If you white-list a friend / user as a ‘reader’ they will only be able to view / read the files you have allowed them to see. They are unable to make any changes to your files unless you allow them ‘editor’ privileges.
This dramatically streamlined system allows a great deal of flexibility and I am impressed with how smooth the whole experience is. Microsoft seems to have really got this service right. I can think of a multitude of situations where this service could be useful, however I will not be using this service personally. For casual file sharing between contacts (who already have Live accounts from MSN) this could prove invaluable, but I will save a discussion of the cloud computing concept (and my reasoning behind this) for another post.