August 17, 2017

Horse 2309 - I Wandered Lonely As A Cloud

In the opening two decades of the twenty-first​ century, we have gone from a place where the beginnings​ of the internet only really connected computers by text, to the point where it is possible to watch and send video in real time. The technology which powered the banking system and other dispersed institutions which required connected computing, has now come to us in the palm of his our hands but instead of just sending very small packets of data that might only contain a few characters, we're sending whole strings which are so long that entire libraries of text can be sent in mere minutes.
In conjunction with this and in an effort to drag ever more profit from the wallets of consumers, software companies have begun to change their selling model from one where you bought a product and could then just use it, to one where you need to pay a subscription for its ongoing use. The subscription model is obviously better for firms because they get both a higher profit margin and a more reliable revenue stream but there is still the pesky problem of the general public being able to use the product and then opt out of paying the subscription fee. Thankfully, in the minds of software companies, the invention of the cloud means that they can now change their programs to make them impossible to use unless the consumer is connected to the cloud. If they can handcuff users to the cloud then profit margins should increase even further because there is no means of escape unless consumers stop using the product.

I hate the cloud.

In many respects, the cloud is a little bit like a protection racket which works in tandem with people who are addicted to a thing. You might think it a bit extreme that I've likened the cloud to substance abuse but in the same way that a dealer might send someone around to your house to mess up your stuff if you neglect to pay them, software companies who distribute their product by the cloud now have the ability to shut someone out and damage their business if they too neglect to pay. That program which in the past, you happily used without worrying about much, is now connected to the servers of the company in a way that didn't happen before.

Maybe I've been a little bit harsh but there is a second and equally insidious reason why I hate the cloud. It is monumentally slow.
Even if you have the fastest internet connection in the world, the cloud is still far too slow for my liking. If you're streaming video, then the protocols of the internet work pretty well. If you are inputting individual and small points of data into a server, then it becomes very tedious very quickly. The round trip time for a transaction on an accounting program that I use and our server in the office is about as long as it takes to blink. That same program in the cloud, has a round trip time of about two seconds. If there are thirty points of data on a page, then that adds one minute to inputting everything on a page. That's fine if you only have a small amount of data to input but if you have sixty or seventy pages of stuff, suddenly there might be a whole hour in a day which you have to wait around doing nothing while the servers think about serving you. If you could compress that hour into a solid block, then you could think about doing something else while your data was being processed but it isn't and it is chopped into tiny little pieces and sprinkled throughout your day, like sprinkling little bits of paprika in a chocolate cake.

With respect to the actual accounting program that I use, the cloud hasn't added a shred of extra benefit other than allowing people to connect to it from anywhere. I understand that that could be extremely useful if you have multiple users at various sites but in general, and with accounting specifically, most people don't want to do the accounting; what they want to do is the business of doing business and that means generating invoices. Naturally if you've installed the ability to put many doors on a building, there are many ways to get inside and while encryption and password protection might save you from malicious outsiders, quite often it is the insiders who will do the most damage to a system. The biggest single problem with opening access to a data set, is not an attack from the enemy without but the enemy within and unless all passwords are changed, the second that someone leaves an organisation, you may as well have left the drawbridge down on the castle.

I suppose that one of my personal peeves with the cloud is the same problem that existed before it ever existed, and that is the indifference of other people. As stated above, people in business don't really want to do accounting and what they do want to do is the business of doing business. It used to be that someone would give us their stuff, sometimes literally a haphazard pile of stuff thrown in a shoebox, and we'd be asked to input the data from the sources given. It has happened on at least a dozen occasions now, where someone has said that they've given us access to their data but when you go on the cloud to actually look at it, they haven't inputted anything at all. From a workflow perspective, we still start at the same point in time but now we have the added hurdle of the cloud to contend with. I have had someone tell me that try thought that it was better that they have access to their data so that they could see what was going on, while completely oblivious to the fact that there is no data to look at until someone has been through the effort of inputting it. The difference now though, is that the cloud added unnecessary time to the process, when we used to just pass the complete file to them to look at, at the end.

Of course, this post wouldn't be complete without mentioning the terrible horrible annoyance of what happens when the cloud isn't working for whatever reason. The internet connection might be out, the company's​ servers might be out, lots of people might be trying to get on all at once and that slows the system down, there might be a malicious person somewhere outside who is doing a direct denial of service or some other kind of attack, the possibilities are myriad. In the dark dank donk days before the cloud, you would have just switched on your computer and used the program in question. If for some reason, the program won't work because of issues with the cloud, then you may as well run around in the jungle and eat bananas for all the difference it makes. If the network becomes a notwork then you don't do any work, and if IBM has taught us anything it is that people should think and machines should work; if they don't work, you don't do work, and that doesn't work for anyone.

Admittedly, I am not old enough to have worked in an environment where computers weren't connected to each other. I am old enough to have worked in a bank where the only data being sent forth and back was batches of transactions and only every so often. The interface at the terminals was in green monochrome and due to the fact that the policy was to keep separate sets of data separate, if you wanted to look at something that wasn't directly connected with transactional banking, you needed to go somewhere else. Bank servers weren't connected to the internet, and so online banking wasn't even remotely dreamed of as being a thing. Instead of millions of users, there were at most only about a few thousand and even back then, there were still connectivity issues.
The cloud hasn't really improved anything that much. What it has done, is turned you into the bank teller but you don't get paid a wage for doing the job. Higher profit margins for companies but not really an order of magnitude of increased benefits for customers - Welcome to the cloud.

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