What is cloud?

The first thing you need to know is that “the cloud” exists in far-flung data centers, which you access via the internet. It is a collection of networked computer hardware that works together to provide many aspects of computing in the form of online services. You can’t physically touch the hardware itself in the public cloud, but you control it remotely via web interfaces.

One of the central features of the cloud is virtualization. Virtual machines are created with software that subdivides the computing power, memory and storage of a given machine into multiple smaller units, each running their own operating system. This virtualization allows computing resources to be shared and allocated efficiently across the cloud.

Cloud computing is a general term that is better divided into three categories:

1.  Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS)

Where big players like Amazon and Google rent out immense computing infrastructure to other companies.

2.  Platform as a Services (PaaS)

Online spaces where developers create online applications for specific sets of users.

3.  Software as a Services (SaaS)

Where clients use software over the internet.

Even the average web surfer at home has interacted with at least some of these. Facebook, Twitter and Gmail are all examples of SaaS cloud applications. One of the things that make it so powerful is the fact that- in the case of the former two- thousands, even millions, of people can interact with the same bit of information simultaneously.

The order giant boon for individual users is that services like Dropbox and Apple’s iCloud allow them to store their photos, email, music, calendars, contacts and other data in a central location, accessible from whatever device happens to be handy. These can be set up to automatically sync with the cloud, ending an era of fumbling with USB cables and cursing yourself for bringing the wrong data stick to a meeting. Relax! That appointment you just noted in your phone will appear seamlessly in your desktop calendar, leaving you free to kick back and enjoy the music you’re streaming from your collection on distant servers.

Cloud storage Vs Cloud computing

Cloud storage involves stashing data on hardware in a remote physical location, which can be accessed for any device via the internet. Clients send files to a data server maintained by a cloud provider instead of (or as well as) storing it on the own hard drives. Dropbox, which lets user store and share files, is a good example. Cloud storage systems generally encompass hundreds of data servers linked together by a master control server, but the simplest systems might involve just one.

Cloud computing also involves clients connecting to remote computing infrastructures via a network, but this time that infrastructure includes shared processing power, software and other resources. This frees users from having to constantly update and maintain their software and systems, while at the same time allowing them to harness the processing power of a vast network. Familiar everyday services powered by cloud computing include social networks like Facebook, webmail client like Gmail, and online banking apps.

Where’s my stuff?

Two words: data centers. Anything you’re uploaded to the cloud, or that you run from the cloud, exists on dedicated servers and storage volumes housed in vast warehouses, often situated on campuses full of such warehouses. Data centres are owned by cloud service providers, who are responsible for keeping the server up and running.

The job of all data centers, however big or small- and yes, some of them can be tiny- is to keep your data physically safe from theft and destruction, and to make sure it’s available whenever you want to access it. They run extensive cooling systems to keep the electronics form overheating and have at least one backup generator in case of power outages.

Once you’ve put your data in the cloud, it may be physically stored in many different places, countries or even continents, depending on where the service provider’s data centre are located. In fact, cloud providers actually make multiple copies of the data you upload and purposely store these in disparate locales to ensure that it won’t get destroyed or be inaccessible in the event that a natural disaster takes out one of the centres.

They physical location of their stored data is irrelevant to the majority of people, since it can be called together over the internet almost instantly. But for organizations using the cloud for certain sensitive type of data- government documents or health records, for example- understanding where the data is headed and which data-protection and privacy laws apply in those places becomes critical.

How safe is the cloud?

The cloud may promise to lift the burden of our ever-increasing data storage needs, but how do we know our data is truly safe when we entrust it to a cloud provider? What measures do they take to address our two biggest concerns: reliability and security?

We’ve already learned that cloud providers store backups in multiple locations. Systems that detect smoke, suppress fires and provide emergency power are also standard features of data centers, and these secret locations are heavily reinforced, guarded and internally protected to prevent intruders or disgruntled employees from physically harming or stealing the storage hardware.

To secure you data so no one else can get at it, cloud systems use authentication processes like username and passwords to limit access, and data encryption to protect data that is stolen or intercepted en route. And yet, passwords can be hacked; often it’s the service provide who holds the encryption keys to your data, meaning that rogue employees could access it; and your data isn’t immune to search and seizure by government entities.

So, to entrust or not to entrust? In any case, you can rest assured that- since cloud storage companies live and die by their reputation- they take great pains to employ the most advanced security techniques and provide the most reliable service possible. But the bottom line is that we live in an age where national governments have been exposed for tapping into supposedly private cloud data. Savvy surfers would be wise to keep anything truly sensitive stored on their personal computer or private cloud behind a firewall, and never upload it to the public cloud.

How was the iCloud hacked?

On 31 August 2014, a cache of almost 200 personal photos of (mostly female) celebrities- many of them explicit- was posted online. X-men and Hunger Games star Jennifer Lawrence and recording artist Rihanna were among those whose private pictures, taken on their iPhones and automatically backed up to the iCloud, were stolen and distributed. Following the attacks, one survey found that 20 per cent of respondents had become less confident in the security of the iCloud, while a further 40 per cent were worried about storing photos and data in any cloud service. How this security breach allowed to happen?

In an interview in the Wall Street Journal, Apple CEO Tim Cook dispelled rumours that the victim’s user IDs and passwords were taken from the company’s servers in a brute force attack. Instead, he explained, the hackers obtained the information via a combination of phishing emails and correctly answering the celebrities’ security questions. “That’s not really an engineering thing”, he commented, but conceded that Apple should have done more to make user savvier about choosing strong passwords and protecting themselves.

Since the scandal, Apple has beefed up its security measures by expanding its two-factor ID verification system to include any time a new device attempts to access or download iCloud data. Users will also receive an email alert or push notification whenever someone tries to do these things or change the account password. Apple plans to aggressively encourage iCloud users, the majority of whom still haven’t enabled two-factor authentication, to turn on the feature immediately.


Chetan Sundarde

What's hurts more, the pain of hard work or the pain of regret?

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