Is cloud computing just the latest buzz phrase?

"Cloud computing" has replaced "Web 2.0" and "social networking" as the latest buzz phrase. IT folks love buzz phrases, and the IT landscape is littered with them. Whatever happened to "client-server," "relational databases," "artificial intelligence," and "fifth generation?" All of those buzz phrases were based on solid and useful technical advances that were grossly oversold as the answer to everyone's problems.

Cloud computing is just the latest, and beware of vendors and IT staff claiming a modest 15% increase in the IT budget to develop a "cloud computing platform" will fix all current and future woes. Or beware of "free" online services that tout cloud computing. Over the past five or six years, as more and more people and businesses have acquired broadband connections to the Internet, it has become more practical to store data of all kinds (documents, email, etc.) remotely and use a desktop application or Web app to access that data. Google Apps is a perfect example, as well as more common services like Gmail and Hotmail.

In many cases, storing data in a "cloud" somewhere on the network improves accessibility, reduces costs, or both. But there are two problems. If you are relying solely on a third party to store your data, you may lose it, as did customers of The Linkup, who just discovered that the company lost large portions of paid customer data. Some customers apparently did not have backups.

Social networking sites also store data in a cloud, and a recent lawsuit over data stored by LinkedIn, a popular business networking service, illustrates similar difficulties. The legal problem arose when an employee left a company in the UK and started a rival firm, using contacts built up during his previous employment and stored online at the LinkedIn service. The employee was sued and the courts forced him to turn over the information; the courts agreed that the contacts represented confidential company data. But it was stored online by a third party and the account was in the name of the employee. And apparently the firm encouraged employees to use LinkedIn to manage contacts.

So beware of cloud computing; technically, it can be used to solve all sorts of datasharing problems, but like any new technology, it can introduce new policy and management issues.

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