The Cloud Ate My Homework!

As we move toward an all-IP world and trust the Internet more, the fact is that the reliability of our voice, data, and video communications systems is being degraded.

Do you trust the cloud with your data, your programs, and other information? Do you believe that no matter what happens your information in the cloud will be instantly available when you need it and safe from attack?

If you answered yes you are in the apparent majority of those who have caught the “Cloud” bug! Since you embrace the future, you embrace the cloud, which is the future of computing. How could you possibly go wrong?

In case you haven’t guessed by now, I am not a fan of the “cloud” and I am certainly NOT a fan of having only one way to access to it—the Internet. Sometimes when circumstances call for it, I store information in the cloud, but I greatly prefer to purchase more local storage, which is available for almost nothing today. I own my local storage, I have local control of it, and if I am smart, I backup my data with a redundant storage system and keep a copy offsite. I do not store my customer information, records, billing information, or anything sent to me under non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) in the cloud. This is all information I don’t trust to others, and I certainly don’t trust it to anyone who has access to the Internet.

Am I worried about being hacked? Yes. I protect my business and home network as best I can even though I believe hackers are more interested in data stored in the cloud than what is on my system. I think they spend their time breaking into NSA, the Feds, power companies, banks, and oh yes, cloud storage where once they gain access to my data they can access the data of hundreds of other companies. There is no such thing as immunity from hackers if you are connected to the Internet, just ask the FBICIA, Target, Macy’s, and many others.

I Am Even MORE Worried about Access!

I still have a Verizon wired phone in my house because it is as reliable as it gets for voice calls. I use a wireless phone for most mobile activities, voice, email, text, and once in a while, access to the Internet. However, I trust my Verizon landline most. It is powered remotely so if my power is out it still works. As long as a fallen tree or a storm doesn’t rip telephone cables out, it is available to me 99.99 percent of the time.

In an ideal world any telecommunications service we rely on should be available 99.999% of the time, referred to as 5-9’s. There are some in operation but these achieve 5-9’s reliability by having a number of backup modes built into the network. Public Safety communications networks are probably closest to 5-9’s but they can still suffer from lack of power, lack of connectivity, and other failures. Most radio sites have generators and most networks can be operated even if phone or fiber service goes down because they can be operated by radio control. If the entire network is down, Public Safety units are able to talk to directly to each other, one-to-one or one-to-many. None of the non-Public Safety networks provide us with that capability—not your wired phone, cell phone, nor the devices you carry today can communicate directly with each other, though some can when within a few feet or maybe a few hundred feet of each other. Public Safety site radios can communicate with each other over 30 to 50 miles and handheld radios for 5 miles or more.

My dial-up phone has no backup, if the wires are damaged or down I have no phone service. If my cellular service is disrupted because the network is overloaded or a portion of the network is down, my cell phone does not work. My Internet connection is even more suspect. If I lose connectivity between my phone or cable or fiber provider and my office or home network I have no Internet connectivity. Usually, if I lose power at my office or my house and don’t have battery backup I lose Internet access.

Network operators will tell you cellular networks are considered to be “best effort” networks. Cellular providers try their best to keep the networks up and running as much of the time as they can and try their best to manage network congestion. However, when too many people in proximity to each other are streaming video there is a high likelihood that the wireless network will slow down or not accept any new users within that cell sector or cell site. This is one reason cellular operators are so busy moving into off-loading data and video traffic onto Wi-Fi hotspots, building more, smaller cells, and trying to build more major cell sites as well. As demand for data continues to double each year, network operators have a tougher and tougher time keeping up with demand.

Cellular networks may be best effort, but they are also managed. Each network operator employs many people to monitor the network in real time 24/7. In many cases the smarts of the network can manage traffic demand, but in other cases it is managed by those in the network operations centers. If a cell site goes down, they know it instantly, and if there is an unexpected surge in network demand in a certain area they are aware of it and can sometimes relieve some congestion by making adjustments to the network. Still, wireless networks can be overloaded, cell sites can stop working, and connections between a cell site and the network can be broken resulting in a non-functioning cell site. This is what happened during Hurricane Sandy when 28% of the cell sites in that area stopped working. In some cases fiber cables were destroyed or flooded in their underground vaults. AC power was no longer available and sites did not have battery or generator backup.

In some cases the generator worked but its fuel had not been replenished and it simply ran out. Then there was the issue of FEMA taking charge and reallocating resources including fuel for generators, and cellular radio technicians who had been staged with parts and equipment were not permitted into the area because it was deemed too dangerous. As a result, many people, for a long time, had no access to cellular and the Internet. When customers needed access to information in the cloud it simply was not available.

If cellular communications is best effort, what is the Internet? Is it, as some seem to believe, a network that will always be available to us? A network with 5-9’s reliability? A network that has so many paths for data it will always get through no matter what? I’m sorry, but if any of you really believe that you are very naive. As we move toward an all-IP world and trust the Internet more, the fact is that the reliability of our voice, data, and video communications systems is being degraded.

Public Safety networks and cellular networks are managed networks, but Wi-Fi networks, the Internet, and other networks that feed into the Internet are not managed. They are a patchwork of companies building their own “network” to add to other networks. At the end of the day, there are no network operations centers, bosses, or overseers of the Internet. It is supposed to be self-healing, self-routing, and invincible. However, it too has limited bandwidth, no manager, and no owner—no one is ultimately responsible for its operation. Some may claim that responsibility, but if a problem develops and the network becomes overloaded, there is no one organization that can see to fixing or do anything to heal it.

However, the Internet just seems to keep on working. Even so, we are beginning to see those providing the on-roads to the Internet—ISPs, wireless networks, cable providers, and others—sometimes limit the amount of data a user can send and receive via their connection to the Internet. Verizon Wireless recently stated that as of October 2014, when the network is busy it will begin to throttle users who still have unlimited data services. Others have already done this or are studying the possibility of throttling users.

Several companies that map the health of the Internet are reporting more and more data being sent over the Internet pipes and times when the Internet appears to be slow. And then there are times when something or someone connected to the Internet comes under attack by hackers or others trying to cause mischief, make money stealing people’s information or company secrets, or are on a spy mission for another company, country, or group that wants to inflict damage. Unknown to many is that private, secure, off-Internet data pipes are used by many organizations that would never trust their data to the Internet and thus the cloud

I am not predicting the failure of the Internet or massive outages that will affect how we make use of the Internet, I am pointing out a trend that concerns me. The more we move into the future of communications both wired and wireless and embrace IP and the Internet as our transport of choice, we appear to be more willing to overlook robustness and therefore reliability of our communications networks.

Networks that provide 5-9’s reliability are used by governments, the military, and others who insist on this level of network availability and are, therefore, willing to pay for it. While no one will tell you wired POTS (Plain Old Telephones Service) has a 5-9’s reliability, it is, today, more reliable than any other communications technology currently available to business and consumer users.

There are a number of ways to achieve close to ideal reliability. One is to engineer a network with as many redundancies as feasible, add reserve power by way of batteries and generators, run truly redundant backhaul circuits, and harden the network wherever possible. Another way is to build a communications network that includes graceful degradation. A Public Safety network operates with shades of gray. Communications still flow even if the network is only partially functional. If the main network fails, communications within a smaller area will still be possible, or if there is a massive network failure, devices that normally use the network can function and communicate with each other over distances of several miles.

However, today’s wireless devices, smartphones, tablets, and other devices that are smart when attached to a wireless network that is connected to the Internet become simply dumb devices that serve no purpose when out of network range or if the network is down or the Internet is otherwise uavailable. With a wireless network we live in a black-and-white world—either our devices work or they don’t. Most people will tell you their devices work all the time no matter where they are. But then they will admit to times and places where they could not connect, could not access the data they wanted, or couldn’t access the network because it was too busy.

When everything works, it works well, but Murphy (a real person) lives with all of us. Murphy’s Law is often shortened to “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong!” You could add that it will go wrong at the worst possible time. You have worked over the week-end on a very important report for your office. You finish it Sunday night and put it in the cloud. Monday morning you show up for your meeting and guess what? There is no Internet access so your work sits in the cloud while you sit in the meeting making excuses. With today’s communications systems and the Internet as the main pipe that connects it all, wired and wireless, it appears we have begun trusting communications mediums that were never designed to provide fail-safe communications.

What can we do to make today’s communications services more robust? Not all that much. People don’t want to pay more for the services they use. In fact, they are always looking for ways to go online for free. Free and reliable are not interchangeable. Perhaps now you can understand that having all of your important information stored only in the cloud might not be the best practice, especially when local storage is so inexpensive. My computers are backed up locally all of the time, the two main ones are also backed up in the cloud but without my customer data or other client material. That is stored only locally.

Trusting your work, your life, to the cloud is today’s version of when people did not backup their computers because they trusted their hard drive, only to be surprised when the day came that their computer would not boot up!

Andrew M. Seybold

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