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Do you know where your data is ?

June 27, 2011

One of the growing trends today is for 'cloud computing', which is like a managed data center, only more so. Cloud computing offers a number of benefits over running your own computers, but you still need to be careful of a number of things, some of which are legal requirements for the processing of your users data.

The Upside

With a typical data center or server room (or closet !) you are responsible for your own hardware, which means not only buying up front, but looking after it when goes wrong or needs a performance upgrade. As well as managing that, you'll still have to make sure the system itself stays up to date with security fixes as well as that your application is available all the time you need it.

Running in the cloud solves a lot of these problems. There is no hardware to worry about for a start - you're application simple floats, like a cloud, amongst someone else's. News International, for instance, have a mantra of 'no more hardware'. This dramatically reduces new features start up time, and frees a lot of technical resource for almost no loss. Typically your virtual environment can be run for much less than a 'real' physical set of servers.

As your application is now not tied to a physical system, it can have it's 'hardware' upgraded with more memory or disk capacity on the fly using just your mouse. Another benefit of not being tied to physical machine is that your application isn't tied to a physical location, so amazing uptimes can be given.

But there's a 'but'

However, just because you don't have to worry about hard drive failures or phoning the technical guys at 3am to reboot a server anymore doesn't absolve you of responsibility for your own data.

For instance, unless you use a vendor-specific machine image (and comply with their update schedule) you'll still have to keep the operating system and the rest of your application's stack up to date yourself, so there's no getting away totally from patch Tuesday. But this at least is something you are already doing, so adapting it for the cloud isn't too much of a wrench.

What is different about the cloud is that you've now let go of your clients data. This can certainly have issues, particularly if you are handling confidential or personal data. For instance, European Data Protection laws prevent moving personal data out of Europe without specific permission unless it's going to a country that has equally strong data protection laws or to a specially registered company. But this is an area that is changing rapidly with the EU keen to protect the interests of the public.

This means you need to make sure your cloud is in the right place (for instance, inside the EU), and more so that your application will never be migrated to a different location. This may have an impact on the availability because now your application wont float between (say) London and New York in the event of a problem in London.

At Extravision, we already use the cloud to deliver large documents to our users, like PDF files and video clips without taking up space or bandwidth from our own application. As the trend to the cloud increases, you can be sure we'll be watching carefully where we put things down - and you should too.

Posted by Tom Chiverton

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