Conventional computing vs the corporate cloud vs the “personal” cloud

Everyone loves cloud computing. Users love it, tech blogs love it, and tech companies are all trying their hand at it—even ones who have no concept of how to provide a half-decent web service. And yes, I’m talking about Apple’s iTools. I mean, dot-Mac. Oh sorry, it’s called iCloud now. Whatever it’s called, it’s still terrible.

More interesting to me than the corporate offerings of cloud-based services (and in some cases withdrawals of those offerings, e.g. Google Reader) is all the new open-source cloud-based software available for anyone to install on their own web host of choice. To clarify, I’m talking about pieces of software that are more like WordPress than Microsoft Word—this is software that you install on a web server, and that you access through a browser, not software that you install on your own home computer. I will refer to this type of software as “personal” cloud software.

Here are a few examples of different categories of software, and rough equivalents for conventional computing, corporate cloud offerings and “personal” cloud alternatives. This is not meant to be a comprehensive list of such services, just a list of examples. Also, the examples given here aren’t meant to be endorsements of the services either.

  Conventional computing Corporate cloud “Personal” cloud
Document editors Microsoft Word
Google Docs
Microsoft Web Office
OX Documents?
WordPress (sort of?)
Email Outlook
Yahoo Mail
Squirrelmail, etc.
Note-keeping Any text editor, really Evernote
Google Keep
Photos iPhoto
G+ / FB
File storage Hard disc Dropbox
Google Drive
Music iTunes / iPod Your favourite music streaming service
RSS reader Newsfire, etc. Google Reader (hahaha)

Usually the debate is framed as being between conventional computing and corporate cloud computing. Sometimes a very nuanced look into these different services will compare different corporate cloud-based services, but rarely does anyone compare the pros and cons of conventional vs corporate cloud vs “personal” cloud services. So, as far I see them, the following are the major issues to consider. Depending on your own level of technical expertise, your priorities, budget and the level of importance that you assign to a particular task that you wish to perform, you may weight these differently. For simplicity, I assigned each category a value of +1 (this is good), -1 (this is bad) or 0 (this isn’t very good or very bad).

  Conventional computing Corporate cloud “Personal” cloud
Who has access to your files? Only you (+1) You, corporation, NSA (-1) You, web host (0)
Who owns the software? You own a licence (0) Corporation (-1) Often open source (+1)
When do you pay? Only once—when you buy the software (0) Never (+1) Every month (-1)
Can a company mine your data for advertising info? No (+1) Yes (-1) No (+1)
Are there advertisements? No (+1) Often, yes (-1) No (+1)
Accidentally losing files? Very possible (-1) Unlikely (+1) Unlikely (+1)
Rolling back to previous versions? Only if you make backups (0) Often yes (+1) Often yes (+1)
Open source software? Sometimes (0) No (-1) Almost always (+1)
Level of technical expertise required to install software? Medium (0) Low (+1) High (-1)
Can the whole service be “Google Reader-ed”? No, but development of your app might be cancelled (0) Yes (-1) No (+1)
Whose computer must be working for you to access your files, etc.? Only yours (+1) The corporation’s (-1) Your web host’s (-1)
Can you collaborate with other users? Not really (unless you count “track changes”) (-1) Yes (+1) Yes (+1)
Accessing / syncing content across multiple devices No (-1) Yes (+1) Yes (+1)
Security depends on whom? You (+1) Corporation (-1) You + web host + software developer (-1)
Is your work available when the internet goes down? Yes (+1) No (-1) No (-1)

If you aren’t scared off by MySQL databases or PHP, the “level of technical expertise” row might be scored differently, or if you doubt your own ability to keep your files secure, you might think that your work’s security depending on Google is a good thing. Haggling over the pros and cons aside, it’s a kind of an interesting result of this exercise that unless you’re really scared of losing work, or unless multi-user collaboration is very important to you, you might be better off avoiding cloud services entirely.

Another interesting result: if it comes down to a choice between a corporate cloud service and a “personal” cloud service, it looks like the “personal” cloud is the way to go—it beats the corporate cloud on every category except price and ease of installation. (And also possibly security.)

Edit (2013 Apr 6): I have added a row for “accessing content across multiple devices.” (Thanks Morty!)

Edit (2013 June 15): In light of recent revelations regarding the NSA’s surveillance, I have added them to the row for “Who has access to your files?”

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The Grey Literature

This is the personal blog of Benjamin Gregory Carlisle PhD. Queer; Academic; Queer academic. "I'm the research fairy, here to make your academic problems disappear!"

4 thoughts on “Conventional computing vs the corporate cloud vs the “personal” cloud”

  1. Great Post!

    “Haggling over the pros and cons aside, it’s a kind of an interesting result of this exercise that unless you’re really scared of losing work, or unless multi-user collaboration is very important to you, you might be better off avoiding cloud services entirely.” – Actually the main reason I enjoy cloud services is that I can access my data from any computer and often from my phone!

    Personally my biggest problem with “personal” cloud services is managing updates/security. It’s no surprise to me that WordPress has pivoted to provide their software as a “corporate” cloud service and that there are a number of companies that specialize in word press hosting. Although I guess WordPress is an unfair example because they have an especially terrible security track record.

  2. Ah good call! I failed to add syncing across devices as a row in the comparison.

    So for you, you might weight the “security depends on whom?” row a bit more heavily, maybe -2 or -3 for the “personal cloud.”

    And you’re right, WordPress has had a very bad time of security. So have a lot of corporate cloud services as well. I’m thinking about Evernote’s recent password fiasco, or in the world of Bitcoin, online wallets get hacked or disappear periodically as a matter of course.

  3. I’m not a Bitcoin expert but from I’ve heard it’s a security gong show. I’m also not an economics expert, but I’m pretty sure there is some kind of bubble situation going on with all the speculation in the market. I’ll think about dropping $100 on some when the market inevitably bottoms out.

    I’m curious to see how Bitcoins will be regarded 20 years from now. Surely we won’t still be using them, but they’re a reasonable first attempt.

  4. I find the whole Bitcoin economy fascinating.

    It’s certainly going through a period of rapid deflation right now. In September, I had a small amount of Bitcoin worth ~ $0.01 Canadian, just to play around with. It’s now worth a bit over $0.20 Canadian. It’s happening because everyone in Cyprus is getting screwed over by their banks, so Bitcoin is seen as a viable alternative there. This caused Bitcoin prices to go up, which caused a feedback loop of media interest and Bitcoin speculation.

    What will be interesting is to see whether or not this influx of people into the Bitcoin economy due to the European financial crisis a big enough mass of people to make it into a useful currency of exchange (once the prices stabilise a bit more), rather than just a high-risk investment.

    As for security, I think the problems that it has are ones that are a necessary part of a project of the sort that Bitcoin is aiming at—one where there’s no central governing body to “fix” things when they go wrong.

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