Not something that happens
But the way something happens
-- Charles Ives,
Essays Before a Sonata

Monday, January 19, 2009

The perils of cloud computing

Last semester I began experimenting with Google Docs as a way of serving documents used in my courses. Previously I had used my account with .Mac (now MobileMe) to accomplish this.
  • But this membership is a bit pricey (about $109 a year, I think), and I hoped to be able to save a bit of money by migrating to a free service.
  • Also, I have had trouble with uploading documents from my laptop to .Mac from certain campuses, since they have the service blocked. Google Docs, as a standard web application, would not be subject to these problems.
  • Finally, I hoped that a simpler web processor would avoid some of the maddening problems that Microsoft Word is subject to (such as something I'm dealing with now: a document that is single spaced on my screen but resolutely double-spaced when uploaded to .Mac, no matter how many ways I change the spacing).
Google Docs turned out to be no better, and sometimes worse. Using the table tool is particularly maddening. But still, it's free and it's accessible through any web browser, which came in particularly handy when I had to make an extended trip to Colombia last fall and was dependent on public internet terminals.

Then, on January 1st, I logged onto Google Docs to find the message "Sorry! We are experiencing technical difficulties and cannot show all of your documents." I didn't think much of it at first, because it was New Years' Day, and perhaps they had to bring the site down for a few minutes for some maintenance. But as hours and days passed with still no access to my documents, I began to worry. It turns out that I'm not the only one to whom this happened. This was a very strange failure, because the documents were clearly still on the server. In most cases I have linked to these documents from one of my blogs, and if you follow those links, the documents are still available. But from the Google Docs console, nothing.

What is particularly scary about this experience is that there really isn't any way to contact Google to find out what is going on, other than to post on one of the support forums. Since it's a free service, Google has no direct incentive to make sure that it works correctly. When it finally did work, no one contacted me to explain what went wrong and how they had corrected the problem.

For this reason, I switched back to using .Mac to synchronize documents between my laptop and the network. Perhaps a paid service will be more reliable—though Apple has had their own problems with .Mac and MobileMe.

What gives me pause is how seductive these free "cloud computing" schemes are, and how difficult it is to disentangle oneself from them.
  • Blogger (another Google product) seems to be robust and reliable, but who knows? Now it doesn't seem like such a good idea to use a private blog to organize material for my current research projects.
  • I thought I might use Google Calendar for all of my scheduling, but I now feel compelled to write down the most important events in an old-fashioned paper calendar. (Thus the network creates more work, because now I have to write things down twice.)
  • What of all of the playlists I have stored on Rhapsody? There's no way to back them up to my own machine, other than writing down the names of the songs and laboriously finding them one at a time if Rhapsody crashes or goes out of business. But Rhapsody is such an improvement over finding music on CDs, the risk is worth it.
  • How about Facebook? Same problem.
  • What of my off-site backups to .Mac? To be really safe, should I be burning my work to discs and putting them in my safe deposit box at the bank? (I actually did do this when I was writing my dissertation, but now I can't imagine when I would find the time.)