How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Cloud

Jun 22, 2010

After sixteen years of using portable computers, I'm more convinced than ever that cloud computing, especially cloud based storage, will save us all. It's not without problems and caveats, but I've been betrayed by storage solutions I thought were reliable, and I'm ready to bury the hard drive in favor of the great gigabyte in the sky.

[Image: Bernat Casero]

I remember the first time my hard disk drive went down. I didn't even know such a thing was possible at the time. I was using a 286-based DOS machine, mostly for writing out school assignments on Bank Street Writer. The machine failed one day and I brought it into a local shop. Without asking, they wiped the drive and I lost everything. The school assignments I could live without, but the creative writing that I lost was the biggest disappointment. I remember fuming at the tech who returned my huge beige box. I also remember that they had slapped a refrigerator magnet to the side of my case with their logo and phone number on it. I didn't realize that hard drives could go down, but even I knew magnets and computers don't mix.

It was years before my next drive failure. All through college, I was smart enough to back up my work to floppy disks, but I never had a dead drive. In grad school, my University set me up in sponsored housing in a bad neighborhood. There were crack deals going on in the elevator. There was a shady park down the street that police told us to avoid at night. Someone broke into my top floor apartment by hanging down from the roof and lifting open a window that was ajar. The police figured that out when they found a footprint in the snow on the window ledge. Apparently, that happens all the time. The thief stole my laptop, my external CD burner, still a rarity back then, and all the accessories within reach. Thankfully, my backup system was a set of CDs that I had burned and stored in the closet.

The last thing the cop said when he left my burglarized apartment was to tell me the thief would be back. They usually hit a few times in a row, figuring that there will be new stuff to steal. The cop was right. I was broken into two more times. The second time, they just stole my stereo equipment. I hadn't replaced my laptop yet, I was still waiting for the insurance check. The cops came again and, at my request, dusted for fingerprints. When I suggested they dust the doorknob, since the thief left through my front door, they laughed at me. Apparently, that only works on television.

I was only gone from my apartment for 15 minutes the third time the thief broke in. He stole my brand new laptop. I had been using my backup CDs to restore my data, and those were gone, too. The cop said that the thief was probably watching me from a neighboring building, and dropped in when he saw me leave. Forget about dusting for prints again, this time the cop wouldn't even come in my building. He just handed me a copy of the report to submit to insurance. I had trouble sleeping for days after.

Insurance paid for a new laptop yet again. A year later, the hard drive went down. I was backing up often, but backing up on CDs is an arduous task. Hard disk drives were still prohibitively expensive, and even DVD burners cost $1000. I lost a vital 2 months worth of work. I lost photos, writing, business work, e-mail. I thought about taking the drive to a recovery service, but even today, recovery can cost hundreds of dollars for a small, 2GB drive. I still have the drive in my desk drawer, waiting for the day I have extra cash and curiosity overtakes me.

Three years later, I had another hard drive issue, but this time it was not on my machine. My sister was living with me, and her hard drive had started to make a clicking sound. Knowing that is usually the death knell, I worked frantically to help her back up her system. I had an external drive, but it did not have enough space for her backup and mine. So, I did what any big brother would do. I erased my backup and stored hers instead, since she would have her computer back within a week.

Can you see where this is going? Computers love irony, and my drive died while she was waiting for her machine to come back from the shop. I had lost everything, again. I added that broken drive to the growing pile in my desk.

I had had enough. For my next machine, I bought a solid-state hard disk drive. I knew the performance benefits and power savings were negligible. It was worth the extra cost to have a drive that would never fail. At the time, I had read that solid-state drives would last decades without a mechanical failure. Sounded perfect to me.

But I wasn't stupid. I also backed up my information to a networked hard drive. I got an Apple Time Capsule, since I was using a MacBook Air. It would automatically backup my data every hour. In fact, it insisted on backing up every hour; the system is not very intelligent. It slows the network to a halt twenty-four times a day, but it was worth it to know that I wouldn't lose information again.

Fool me once, shame on me. Fool me six times, well, you might as well just hit me in the face with a baseball bat.

The SSD went down. I couldn't believe it. The Apple Genius says it does happen, the solid-state drives die just like any other. They don't die of the same mechanical failures that kill most hard disk drives, they die for different reasons. I wasn't sweating when I left the Apple store. I knew I had the Time Machine backup to fall back on. But no, the backup was corrupted and my machine, with a fresh new drive, wouldn't recognize the backup file. Once again, everything was lost.

Now I have two backup hard drives in addition to the Time Capsule. Two FireWire drives in a chain, one a portable that I hide in an undisclosed location. Once every six months, I make a hard copy on DVDs. It takes hours. But you know what? If I lost all of those drives, all of those backups, I wouldn't care.

My e-mail is stored on Gmail servers now, and I so much space that I'll never have to erase a message. My photos are stored on Flickr, where I have a Pro membership so I can upload an unlimited number of full resolution files. My music is on my iPod, but my library information is stored on a few different online services, so even if I lost the files, I'd still be able to play any track I like, and then some.

There are problems with the cloud. I worry about what happens if Yahoo gives up on Flickr, or if the world gives up on Yahoo. I worry about how I'll get all my e-mail off Google's servers if I suddenly need to try something different. But this isn't real worrying. This isn't like worrying that a thief is watching me come and go, ready to drop in for a friendly visit. This isn't like worrying that my backup files are corrupted, or that I'll run out of local storage space. Sure, things could go wrong, but I have much more faith in Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and other cloud services that I use than I do in my own systems. I don't need to worry like that any more, because now I have the cloud.

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