Product forecast: Cloudy with a chance of confusion

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Recently, Apple rolled out a big iPhone software upgrade that included an invitation to participate in iCloud, which I thought that was a pretty cool thing.

Here it is, a special cloud just for all of my Apple devices, where photos move from my phone to my iPad automatically. So, of course, I said yes.

Then a peculiar thing started happening. My e-mail started coming in twice, my calendar started duplicating appointments and all of the notes that I had stored on my phone showed up as errors in conflict with my laptop. It turns out that the iCloud was the tipping point that demonstrated how having one too many clouds holding and sharing my data can cause a ripple effect of errors across my devices.

But I love the concept of Clouds

Cloud computing is going to be (or possibly already is) the next great thing in computing, no question. The ability to store and retrieve data in a way that’s independent of devices that break every two years is fantastic. The idea that we never have to delete old photos, documents and e-mails or worry about storage capacity is incredibly liberating. Why wouldn’t we all be “in the cloud” with our personal files?

What’s in which cloud?

So it isn’t just one cloud that our information is stored in. The cloud is a lot of little places that are all branded and protected, based on the vendor that you’ve selected to store your information. I think of it like New York City — a big place with lots of powerful meetings that take place in tiny rooms.

So here’s how it looks for you; Say your photos are all stored in the Picasa cloud, and your e-mail is all archived neatly in the Gmail cloud, and the computer files on your hard drive are backed up on the Mozy.com cloud. This actually means your data is stored in three of those rooms in the “New York Cloud.” The cloud rooms don’t communicate with each other unless you give one cloud permission to access data on another cloud (think: conference call). And only some clouds can actually access data in other clouds.

It’s pretty cloudy out there

Unfortunately, what I’m seeing is the same mangle of data that I originally experienced by having too many devices, except now my data mangle is virtual and doesn’t clutter up my desk so much. One cloud has this stuff, the other has this other stuff, and I can’t remember which cloud I used for my blog. Oy vey.

Businesses are running into a similar issue with their movement into cloud storage — For example, if they use Google Apps for e-mail and then also use a document management system, do the e-mails wind up in two places or in one? If one cloud provides managed security and the other does not, then is the data ever really safe?

What happens when the people who set up the clouds used by the office leave the company (or get hit by that proverbial reckless bus)? The reason I ask is because cloud configuration not something that the next person on the job would stumble across. Certainly it’s different than tripping over a big hard drive lying around. It may be that gigabytes and terabytes of information that aren’t used on a day-to-day basis just get lost in the cloud forever.

And speaking of data lost in the clouds —who’s cleaning the clouds? And what would a cloud purge mean for my company?

We’re running fast into the cloud both personally and professionally, but look before you leap my friends. It’s awesome, but be prepared for some nasty weather as we learn how to manage this new way of computing.

Marci De Vries is president of MDV Interactive, a web consulting firm in Baltimore. Reach her at marci@mdvinteractive.com.