Ditching the Hard Drive – An Apologia for the Cloud

In effect, I’ve ditched the hard drive. There’s still a drive to run an operating system and some software that hasn’t yet graduated to the cloud, and still some local copies of temporary/transitional graphic files but, with a few nominal exceptions, there’s really nothing on the hard drive I can’t afford to have wiped out or destroyed. Documents are in Google Docs. Frequently accessed code is in Evernote. Frequently accessed graphic files are in dropbox. Photos are in Picasa. Music is in Amazon Cloud Player. Ebooks are in Amazon cloud storage for Kindle. Videos are in Youtube. And finally, archives (tax records, family records, etc.) are kept on Amazon Web Services (AWS) servers. Writing is in various blogs with automated backup to AWS. In fact, all critical items are archived to AWS. On top of this, the local hard drive partitions are backed up with encryption to Backblaze (just in case). And my desktop (place most likely to keep a temporary file) is synchronized to AWS. People ask “How could you do this? How could you dump everything to the cloud?”

Aren’t you worried about security?

Actually, stuff that’s safely in the cloud, protected by Secure Socket Layer (SSL) and further levels of encryption and security on top of that, are far more secure than sitting on a hard drive that can be accessed easily by malware, data recovery, and various forms of spying. That site you or your brother in law visited is probably making a copy right now. Which would you rather have, a) all the iron-clad security of your cheesy home computer system or b) security and encryption continually hardened by a team of people whose sole purpose is that task on servers protected by enterprise grade firewalls with intrusion detection and countermeasures, among other things? Yeah, I am concerned about security – which is why I use the cloud.

Aren’t you worried about losing your data?

Actually, data in the cloud is usually backed up redundantly and automatically three times over, even if they don’t tell you about it. With AWS, I have triple-redundant images of my data physically stored in separate parts of the United States. It’s about as safe as it gets. The Apollo moon rocket probably wasn’t as secure. Compare that to your home computer. All it takes is a good brownout, hard drive crash, malware infection, fire, flood, or theft to wipe or expose that stuff. You think the average home computer user has offsite backups, let alone sufficiently redundant ones? Let alone current ones? Let alone automated ones? When’s the last time 3/4 of the people you know backed up? Where’s their critical data – in soggy file folders in the basement? Aren’t they worried about their data?

How can you find anything?

Actually, things that are in the cloud – documents, music, photos, whatever – are searchable at speeds that dramatically exceed what you can do with your hard drive. With Google discontinuing Google Desktop Search to focus on the cloud (a move I disagree with at this time, but understand and ultimately think is the correct direction), your best bet for quickly and easily locating that term paper you wrote in 1986 or that photo of your first cat is lightening fast servers maintained, and kept clean and lean, for secure access in the cloud. Finding things is greatly improved. Besides the fast searches, I’ve never been more organized, and I tend to be very organized and to keep everything. Going to the cloud helped me rationally structure my data in ways that I’m more likely to know what I have, because I know what I’m willing to jettison if that dollar a month becomes too much. I know what zip file I have to download if I need to actually put it on a drive for some reason.

What about that notorious breach or data loss?

Actually, the exception underscores the rule. The reason that notorious breach or data loss of cloud storage is so significant in terms of PR, but is of virtually no significance in terms of actual damage to most of us, is that it stands out as such a notable exception. Breaches of home computers and data loss on home computers have become so common place that we’ve come to just expect them. Which is why some people are still hoarding soggy files in the basement. Compare the numbers and frequency. Data is far safer and more secure in the cloud. Not on the typical corporate server, mind you. Those guys are idiots, mostly. Corporations and government agencies routinely make stupid IT decisions (usually it’s the corporate people, not the IT guys) that result in exposing your private data to the world. But people that are in the cloud storage business aren’t that stupid, on the whole. After all, they really have one primary job – safely and securely store data on fast, searchable servers with enterprise grade encryption and firewalls. The rest is marketing. Given a choice between AWS and that computer sitting in your dining room, or the laptop you sometimes take to Starbucks, or that thumb drive in your coat pocket, let alone the PC in your kid’s bedroom that’s full of family photos and stalker bait, I’m going with Amazon.

Isn’t it more expensive?

Actually, it’s cheaper than dirt. Seriously – I can’t buy potting soil for the price of my cloud storage. I dumped virtually everything, and I think my total cost to maintain is around a dollar a month. In other words, if I ever became homeless, I’d still have everything. You? Compare a $12/year to what you’re spending replacing (and cleaning) hard drives.

What if the grid goes down?

If the grid goes down, you won’t be worried about digging out that short story you wrote two years to help bring post-apocalyptic civilization (oxymoron) beyond Thunderdome. You’ll have more immediate and desperate worries. But as your hard drives degrade, in the darkness of your urban cave, and the data on your backup CDs evaporates or begins to glitch from digital media degredation (what, you didn’t know CDs start to lose their bits after about 3 years? and hard drives too. Why do you think the warranty is only 3yrs on the premium ones?), you might actually long for the comfort of not having to stay there by your PC and starve in order to protect your rotting data. I’m going to do what my people have always done in that situation. Throw a pack over my shoulder and migrate toward a better climate. If the grid comes back up, I’ll leave the team of server experts to recover the real grid, which has always been just a series of servers. That’s all the internet is – servers. If the cloud is down, the whole net is down. What difference does my hard drive make?

What about employees of cloud companies eyeing your data?

Well, I think of this like the claim that we never actually landed on the moon. They can have my digital music and ebooks, of course. But all the critical stuff is either encrypted to where even their own employees can’t see it any easier than the NSA, if they want to go to that trouble, let alone focus on me, or it’s coded (in a tiny few cases) so that, even if the encryption were busted, it wouldn’t matter. What – they might read that book report you plagiarized in high school that got an A from that credulous teacher who patted you on the back and told you about your potential? They’re scrutinizing your long-haired phase or that time you got a mullet? What are you really worried about? If you’ve got a lot of compromising photos of yourself, you’ve got issues that go beyond where you keep your data. And if they’re on your hard drive, they’re so easily exposed to the web, intruders, thieves, data recovery jocks (when you discard the PC), technicians (what do you think they search for first when you take your PC to the nerd squad for repair? – .gif – that’s what). Worried you’ll be embarrassed if out of the millions of people who have written a poem about flowers, they’ll go through all it takes to find yours, and then actually spend time reading it? They’re more likely playing Worlds of Warcraft with their spare time. No, this is projection. The kind of employees that would try to eye your data are more likely to work where *you* work, or be you, which is why you shouldn’t guard your own data but leave it to people who will actually be good at it instead of dipping around looking at trivial crap. You’re worried about the server guys not because they’re like themselves, but because you’re imagining you or people you know as the server guys.

What about identity theft?

You send e-mail, right? E-mail, generally speaking, traverses the web “in the open” – meaning it’s not encrypted and can be grabbed and read by anyone with sufficient knowledge. That’s why it’s forbidden to use it for government guaranteed loan transactions (e.g. by appraisers and mortgage brokers) in any situation where it may contain your personal information or data. Of course, those guys send attachments back and forth all the time “in the open” (i.e. by ordinary e-mail). It’s a violation of the GLB (Gramm–Leach–Bliley) Act, but who’s really paying attention when you’re trying to buy a house to keep your hard drives in? People who send e-mail, for personal or business purposes, and are afraid to use “the cloud” don’t make any sense. You’re already using it – the only question is whether it’s secured and encrypted or sent “in the open”. E-mail traverses servers (which is what the internet is – a network of servers), is stored on servers (it has to be), and usually in easily readable format. It’s far easier to read your e-mail than your cloud documents. If you’re really concerned about day to day security, you should be paying more attention to how you communicate. Frankly, the easiest method to carry out identity theft is stealing e-mail. Yes, it’s sometimes done through breaches of bank security, or more often from online store vendors who have your credit card information, but that stuff is being fairly well mitigated. Extra security layers have become the norm in reliable online accounts, identity data and financial data are being segregated through privacy measures, return policies and no-liability policies are helping remove your financial risk, and I think most of us aren’t going to stop buying anything online. It’s far, far more likely actually, for you to get your data stolen at a local ATM or video store than from Netflix. So, what identity theft measures, protocols, and policies have you implemented in your e-mail?

OK, so here come the positives.

Think of it like this: if you were going to run an enterprise grade application that would drive a company and ensure rock solid day to day operation, would you install it to your home computer, as it stands right now? Or given the choice, would you run it from Amazon? I know my answer. There are also some really positive benefits of dumping the hard drive (in principle, even if your local computer still has one in fact). It’s amazing to me that people think nothing of putting their money in the bank instead of the mattress, or trusting their mail to the post office, but can’t keep their documents, photos, and other stuff online. We do our banking entirely online, by the way. We don’t have a single walk-in bank account – it’s all remote, online deposit, etc. The least secure place you can put anything is the place you’re most likely to put it *instead* of the cloud.

Portability: I can be anywhere and, if I have access to sufficiently advanced hardware, and enough of it, can do my work. I can walk away from any place at any time, hit the “securely wipe” button for temporary files, and leave nothing of import behind, but still access whatever I need from anywhere I land. That’s a strong kind of freedom – one of the most basic ones; freedom of movement is guaranteed by Western legal principles but only rarely exercised in the US. Inspired by the new class of mobile entrepreneurs, it’s a value I prize highly. Fire, flood, theft – these threaten some of my clothes (replaceable), some sticks of furniture (I’ll see furniture again), and what little food is in the fridge, but they don’t touch the stuff I need to work, to move, to live, and to remember where I’ve been. The choices we can make now make that come from portability are priceless. And hey, it’s reversible if I ever decide (as people seem to think I will) that it was all a big mistake. I can download all that crap to any hard drive in the world, if I really need to become the hard drive guy again. But why go back? The stuff is there to be used or saved but not to chain me to a particular place full of digital furniture and technology that I have to guard with my life. You can hit us with a bazooka and, as long as the people survive, the rest is fine.

Sensibility: The cloud has helped me rationally order my life. Because of the cloud, things like an HSA, IRA, ACD, and really solid accounting (which people seem to always mean to do but skip) are part of my planning.

Peace of Mind: I’m far *more* suspicious, certainly not less, than the next guy. But I’m not concerned that Google is feeding me targeted advertisements. So? I’m not worried that Google is using my photos to improve image recognition. So? And for me, letting go of a pile of data that I treat as physical stuff occupying physical space, that I have to look at, keep track of, protect, secure, back up, and carry with me when I move, is peace of mind. I feel a bit more like Bilbo did after his adventure. I can walk out my door, down my garden path, and I find out where the road will take me, with little more than my cloak, hat, and walking stick. That’s back to portability, but the point I’m making is that “home” isn’t the stuff anymore. It’s the intangible. As Francis said in Brother Sun, Sister Moon, “if we had possessions, we’d have to fight to protect them”. I may not live with only a rope and a single garment, but certainly having home be in things that are less destructable, less transient, gives greater peace of mind. Home is not, as so many people tell me it is, a mortgage, a driveway, and a lot of knickknacks and furnishings from Walmart or Pier One Imports.

Earlier Experiments: I bought into the first mainstream generation of netbooks. I still like them for very fast startup and web access for quick work – not a lot of multitasking. In fact, I settled on a type of netbook that has no hard drive access and depends utterly on the internet – a Google Chromebook. If you’re not connected to the web, it doesn’t do much, although there are a lot of offline apps now. But they all still run in the browser and use the browser cache for storage. People ask what I do if there’s no internet. I answer “go someplace else”. What I’m thinking is “I go back to a first world environment, whether that’s the local coffee shop, or whatever. Some place with access to information.” Or I flip over to GSM (cellular) internet, if I’m stuck with no way to leave in one of those ‘in between’ places like an auditorium. Honestly, though, I can’t imagine staying in a hotel without internet. I leave coffee shops (without ordering) that don’t have it. People sometimes think I’m being too demanding. I’m sorry, but internet is the 21st century equivalent of electricity and running water. I simply don’t go to places that don’t have those, unless the goal is to get away from civilization’s trappings. I demand flushing toilets, electrified light fixtures, and yes internet, and I view them as equivalent technologies. What’s the point of light if there’s nothing to read? Discussion? Discussion of what? How inane is discussion if there’s no information to discuss? You don’t have internet? You might as well have an outhouse and kerosene lamps. And then, do I really want coffee there?

Newer Experiments: I have an ipad too (you think no hard drive access is an issue? try no USB port – that’s a *real* problem). And I have a Kindle. All of these serve various purposes that have been quite successful. I call my ipad my “idea-pad”, because I use a stylus with it and find it an ideal tool for visualizing problems or organizing thoughts. I hardly ever touch my traditional laptop. It takes too long to boot, has to run a lot of extra security crap (because it’s based around the idea of a hard drive), and I have to treat it like a portable appliance (can’t jar it, drop it, etc – because it has a drive that spins). And what do I have on that drive? Nothing. Just the operating system and a few behind-the-times software applications. Even the antivirus is cloud-based, tho, and I really just use the browsers. And besides, it doesn’t come with built-in Bamboo tablet and stylus, and it doesn’t respond to gestures and swipes like my ipad does (it’s slow for that kind of activity). And no, a generic tablet isn’t the same thing. Guys that think that are still living in the PC era, and ultimately the hard drive era, quoting “specs” that you can root, and wipe, and overclock, etc. If data is in the cloud, and you just need the net, what’s the point of all that? We long ago reached a level of processor power and cheap, available RAM for doing whatever we want on the web. The design elements are what matter now, not the specs. And there’s no comparison (even w/o Flash and without a USB port, for which Apple should be flogged) between an ipad and a generic Android tablet, as much as I like Google and it’s operating systems. The ipad is like driving a well-designed automobile vs. a K-car (for those of you old enough to remember).

Earlier Societal Experiments: The first generation of netbooks had solid state (SSD) drives. No moving parts, you could drop them, and they are much faster, and no defragging (don’t defrag your SSD!). Those netbooks were competing on the basis of design and schema. The 2nd generation tho, if you can call the following Christmas that, all had traditional hard drives and were competing on the basis of specs. They were boasting 250GB. Really? Why on earth do you need 250GB of hard drive space on a portable computer with a 10″ monitor in the age of the Internet? And of course, purchasers were deeply disappointed and went back to laptops when the netbooks turned out to be “underpowered” versions of the same. It’s because they were using them wrong, and buying them for the wrong reason, and netbook manufacturers weren’t holding the line like Google and Apple. It’s like buying an air conditioner to keep your milk cold. It’s just an uneducated move. And the netbook makers shot themselves in the foot while Jobs was pointing out, rightly, that people don’t really know what they want until you tell them what they need – something borne out in my line of work.

Newer Societal Experiments: What I’ve determined is that the netbook /cloudbook thing is too soon for people who need some storage, and the ipad (as a mobile device) is just fine for people who only talk to friends with the internet or who will have more than one device. I’m not against multiple devices, but what I’d love to see is a hybridization of ipad, Chromebook and Amazon cloud storage. I’d like to see, instead of hard drive storage, a system that treats AWS as your hard drive, and uses SSD for the operating system and apps. Not because that alone is a sufficient change of mentality, but because it’s a transitional one for most people. There are already apps that do this with AWS. If I was building a system for a family member who didn’t just need mobile stuff, I’d set it up so that AWS *is* the primary data storage, with drive letters and everything. No backing up (Amazon does that), no worry about data loss, encryption issues, and nobody scraping data off the disk when the machine goes belly up – it was never on the disk to begin with. Compare that to Dropbox, which is still based on the hard drive as a primary appliance (delete the dropbox folder from your hard drive and it deletes it from your dropbox), and AWS is way ahead – just not as immediately clear for most people. It’s hardware in the cloud. Dropbox is an app. But apps like Goodsync and Cloudberry are making AWS more accessible.

In short and in summary, I can commit to the cloud because the cloud is safer, more secure, more reliable, less expensive, more easily searchable, with greater portability and peace of mind. More, greater, and less than what? Than a system based on phonograph technology. I’m not knocking the phonograph, and it’s equivalents (tape cassettes and floppy & hard drives – the stuff computers have used for data storage). They were very useful in their time. I’m saying their time is up. It’s too much infrastructure and the wrong architecture given the options now available for lifestyle and how technology fits into it. Don’t believe you’ll ever keep your data in the cloud? Where’s the data in your phone? You know, the contacts, messages, and e-mail you receive that way? It’s either sitting on the phone, ready to be lost or stolen, or it’s being backed up into the cloud.

addenda: What about Carbonite, Mozy, Crashplan, Backblaze, etc? Sure, I use Backblaze. But I don’t really need it. It’s just yet more redundancy. You can set things up so your cloud storage tools back up to each other. I do that with web sites. They’re automatically backed up to Amazon. But how about this: back up the cloud to your hard drive, not the other way around. If you’re really concerned, that’s all you need to do. For example, Google Docs lets you download a zip file of all your documents. Do that once in a while. Or again, use a service or cloud app to do it. There are plenty.