The term ‘cloud computing’ refers to the idea that programs, processing and data storage can be run on a connected remote server rather than happening on your personal computer device. It was coined in the 1990’s by Irish entrepreneur Sean O’Sullivan, but didn’t achieve true buzzword ubiquity until the late 2000’s.
The term is still vague, despite attempts by the European Union to give it a concrete definition. To me, it simply means that the code I’m using and interacting with is happening on a computer that isn’t in my nearby physical space. But this lack of proximity to the physical location of the code can be worrying. Usually it means it’s happening on a server thousands of miles away that you have no control over. Can you trust that the code is safe, and not working against you? Who else might see your data when it’s stored in the cloud?
Despite these fears, most of us have embraced the cloud, using cloud storage providers like Google and Dropbox and installing mobile apps which store our data and process it remotely. But what is the alternative? One option is to store all your files and run applications on your own hardware. But many applications are cloud-only, and it is hard to make backups and integrate multiple devices (laptop, tablet, phone) without syncing via a cloud. Another is to encrypt all your data before you upload it to the cloud, but this can limit its use (the data needs to be decrypted before you can do anything with it).
A better alternative might be for each of us to have our own personal clouds which we can connect to via our personal devices. Personal clouds would be under our control, running on hardware that we own or trust. They could be hosted on lightweight, internet-connected devices kept in safe, private places – perhaps in a safety deposit box in your home. Or they might be hosted somewhere else – by a hosting provider you trust – and be easily packaged up and taken elsewhere if you change your mind.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve been trying to migrate away from my existing cloud storage providers (including Google Drive, Dropbox and Ubuntu One), and experimenting with running my own personal cloud. I’m trying out various free and open-source personal cloud systems, hosted on my own hardware (an old laptop), or on a hosting provider I trust.
Sceptics may say that this option is beyond the technical capability of the vast majority of users. I’d agree – without experience as a system administrator, it wasn’t simple to set up and maintain. But despite a few teething problems, it’s not as hard as I thought. With a bit of help and some improvements in user experience, running your own server could be within the reach of the average user. Just like the motor car and the personal computer, personal clouds don’t need to be fully understood by their owners.
One day, owning your own cloud might be as common as owning your own home (it would certainly be more affordable). And as personal data plays an increasingly important role in our lives, trusting the hardware it’s housed in might be as important as trusting the roof over your head.
I hope to blog further about my journey towards a personal cloud in the coming weeks and months…