The Invisible Cloud

July 1, 2010

Our data defines the way we work, the way we relax, the way we play, and the way we live. Few job descriptions can be separated from the data involved. From the nurse who manages patient records to the package deliverer who obtains digital signatures, almost everyone works with data. Likewise, in our personal lives, we store everything from music and movies to photographs and recipes digitally.

Our societally-ingrained reliance on and use of digital data is what makes it so important. And while business data may have an estimable dollar worth, our personal data is often invaluable. A good business lead might be worth thousands of dollars, but a video of a daughter taking her first steps is priceless.

Sadly, such data is being lost every day. It’s been estimated1 that almost 20 billion dollars of business data is lost yearly. It’s hard to imagine how much priceless personal data must also be lost. And even though we in the technical business know to treat hard disk drives as subject to unexpected failure and mobile devices as easily broken, lost, or stolen2, many individuals do nothing to prevent or mitigate the loss of their personal data.

Part of the cause for so much lost data is simply a lack of awareness that the risks are so severe. But at times, even many of those of us who know better have simply succumbed to laziness in our backup habits. Backing up can be a time-consuming and tedious process. And though tools have been created to ease the pain of backups3 by substantially automating the process, they often still involve inconvenience and compromise.

With the advent of devices like the iPhone and iPad, our data usage has become even more mobile, and thereby even more susceptible to damage, loss, and theft.

It’s my opinion, however, that what we need in this age of highly mobile, often valuable data isn’t better backups; it’s a change in our data storage paradigm. The problem with backups isn’t that they can’t or don’t work. In fact, they can work well. The problem with backups is that we must be aware of them. We must use them, if not perform them.

Put a different way, backups are a relic of a “device-based” data paradigm. But with the connectivity and security infrastructures in place, it’s time to move to a “cloud-based” data paradigm. This obviously sounds fuller of buzzwords than meaning, but I believe good definitions of “the cloud” to be more concerned with the way we perceive data and computing than with how it’s implemented.

Regardless of implementation, we should be able to think of our data as being tied not to a physical device or object, but to a username and a password. Webmail was one of the earliest implementations of this paradigm, but it had great disadvantages: a user experience tied to a specific set of web technologies, and even more specifically, a lack of offline access. These have, of course, been alleviated for email itself, but what of everything else?

DropBox is a great step in the right direction, providing device-independent directories. But the best and most complete realization of this new paradigm will be subject-specific. Photos, for example, should be synchronized via the cloud and directly to the album applications we’ll want them in on all our computers and devices. Office documents should be synchronized to online editors as well as desktop and mobile office environments.

The list goes on, but the point remains: data should not only be seamlessly and effortlessly synchronized with the cloud, it should be pushed to exactly the contexts where it’s wanted and needed. The technology is all present and the infrastructure exists4; all that’s left to do is to stop thinking in terms of device-based data storage, and start taking advantage of the cloud in a way that’s invisible to the user, but will make manual synchronization, the need for traditional backups, and data loss itself a thing of the past.

 


1In a study by Dr. David M. Smith
2Or all of the above, if Gizmodo has any interest in your devices
3Such as Apple’s Time Machine application
4Now if only there was a company with reliable, cost-effective cloud-services and a ridiculously powerful and flexible API.