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Shady Illuminations

Cloud Strife

by John Shade

Generic image illustrating the article
  John makes a half-hearted effort to replace the cloud metaphor with something that he seems to think is better, but it holds up about as well as an Amazon EC2 instance (did I say that?)  

The fifth of May translates into cinco de Mayo in Spanish, and Cinco de Mayo translates into celebration in Middle American. Officially. Six years ago, the Congress of the United States directed the President to issue a proclamation calling upon the people of the United States to observe Cinco de Mayo with “appropriate activities.” No specification of what activities the Congress might consider appropriate was provided.

The President probably had a few ideas. In his younger days, he could have given lessons in how to celebrate Cinco de Mayo, a minor regional holiday in Mexico that has been usurped in the U.S. by celebrants of random ancestry as an excuse to get wasted. Much like St. Patrick’s Day or Oktoberfest, but thankfully nobody feels compelled to put green food coloring in the margaritas. (There’s no guarantee that somebody won’t bring out an accordion, though.)

Those of us not hampered by a pledge of temperance or the public scrutiny of high office are free to celebrate General Ignacio Zaragoza Seguín’s historic defeat of Napoleon III’s forces at Puebla in whatever way we find appropriate. I suggest the cloud drinking game. Take a drink every time some tech pundit uses a phrase like “partly cloudy” or “extended outlook.”

Cow Computing

I wonder if the popularity of cloud computing doesn’t have more to do with this richness of metaphor that the word “cloud” offers than with any actual technological novelty. Not that the metaphors aren’t often highly appropriate: forecast uncertain, foggy concept, dark lining, need to clear the air.

But given the actual level of ho-hum of the idea of putting your data and computations in somebody else’s data center, the metaphors that occur to me all inherit from class Ungulate. Let’s face it, the most exciting thing you can say about Amazon Web Services is that it has nine stomachs: once it swallows your data, you have no idea where in the ruminant beast it’s gone. I think the Ungulate class is at least as rich a source of metaphor as the Cloud class, and I recommend it to you. Cow tipping, cow farts and global warming—go ahead, milk it for all it’s worth.

Until the Ungulate meme catches on, though, I guess I have to stick with the cloudy one. So….

I have to admit I was a little foggy on the basics, like just how you seed the cloud with your data and computations. So I googled cloud formation and extrapolated. Here’s what I came up with:

When the budget for your data center drops below the dew point, there is a net condensation and a cloud forms.

So I figure that’s how it works. Not that it actually works, of course.

Unavailability Zones

“Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night stays these courageous couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds,” is the unofficial motto of the U.S. Postal Service, and if you buy that, you probably also trusted Amazon to keep your data safe.

On April 21, Amazon’s EC2 cloud service experienced a large service disruption. Well, it was really Amazon’s customers who experienced the service disruption, and it was not a pleasant experience. The outage lasted four days, took down the websites of dozens of high-profile companies, and permanently destroyed many customers’ data. In a 6000-word apology, Amazon said that the outage “was caused by several root causes interacting with one another and therefore gives us many opportunities to protect the service against any similar event reoccurring.”

Yeah, yeah. Looking at a disaster as a learning opportunity may be a nice healthy attitude, but it doesn’t really sit well in the middle of an apology to the people whose businesses you damaged by your screw-up. Here’s a different spin on the same sequence of events: Amazon screwed up, and then missed multiple chances to recover from the screw-up.

I mean, aren’t those “many opportunities to protect the service” in fact many ways that they failed to protect the service? The only way you get those three nines, or whatever Amazon’s acceptable-level-of-disaster target is, is to build in safeguards for low-probability events. It seems like in this case one low-probability event was all it took, because all the gates were down from there on. Oh, and the way I read Amazon’s apology, the primary triggering event was human error. Human error is not a low-probability event.

Last month it was Amazon. Next month it may be Google or some other cloud purveyor. Clouds are untrustworthy. I’m thankful to Tony Hillerman, without whose deep distrust of clouds’ illusions I’d be forced to quote Joni Mitchell. In Skinwalkers, one of Hillerman’s mystery novels of the Southwest, he writes of “the clouds forming over Black Mesa, offering a false promise of rain.” Hillerman’s clouds are always promising what they can’t deliver. I’m with Tony. You’re a fool to entrust your data to someone else’s servers.

Or, for that matter, to your own. It’s the law: your data belongs to Murphy, and one day he’s going to come to collect.

John Shade was born under a cloud in Montreux, Switzerland, in 1962. Subsequent internment in a series of obscure institutions of ostensibly higher learning did nothing to brighten his outlook. Send the author your feedback or discuss the article in the magazine forum.