Raindrops in the cloud: the advantages and disadvantages of using cloud computing and software as a service

Twitter has failed and your shared online calendar is down. The lag on your task list server is too great for the overloaded wifi you’re currently using and you’ve forgotten your password for that Google Doc you were working on… Would this scenario paralyse your day to day work?

I’ve long thought that there are legal and security issues which are often overlooked in the use of cloud computing or web services. The issues are around crucial data, its availability and security and the reliability of services – for business because of access to crucial data relating to their business, and for learning organisations because of quality of learning and assessment. Data protection issues too are relevant to both.

“Cloud”-based services are those that are provided over the Web and enable the user to access an application and its data from any web–enabled PC anywhere in the world. It can be anything from a Google calendar or Wrike task lists, to online Photoshop or an accounting package. You don’t an more have to have programs installed on your computer you can do nearly anything via the Web. Typically the basic service is free and the advanced features are paid for by subscription.

But what if those services are withdrawn suddenly, as happened recently with a blogging service and a social networking service. Especially if the service you are using is free, what kind of reassurance do you have that you can recover your data, that it is secure, and that you will continue to have access to it?

Should your business become reliant on a free service or your course content be entrusted to a blogging service on the other side of the world?

It’s clear that the advantages of such services include:

  • they are accessible from any web-enabled computer, at home, at work, on the move
  • users can subscribe at the appropriate level for their needs, and don’t have to pay for an expensive licence for a piece of software with features they’ll never use 80% of
  • there are regular updates of the software and it’s maintained by the provider

But what are the disadvantages?

  • data is transferred to the servers of the providers
  • risk of unexpected downtime
  • sudden changes to or withdrawal of service
  • Data protection laws should also be considered: Personal data about individuals is protected in the UK by the data protection legislation, and this states that data should not be transmitted outside the European Economic Area (EEA) except for certain circumstances. Many “cloud” or web-based service providers operate on servers outside this area, for example in the USA. (For more information see, e.g., Eversheds solicitors)

Using web-based services makes financial and business sense in many circumstances, but it’s clear such services should be used in the context of a clear IT policy with contingency provision and working backup processes, with all legal requirements taken into account.

Originally published on reachfurther.com