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Your data, as you want

01 Aug 2010

It seems everyone is ‘on’ Facebook, whether you are a government department, telecommunications business or simply someone with funny cat photos to share.

Recently Bloomburg Business Week reported that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg may have signed a contract which if upheld, would see the company transfer ownership. In addition to its ownership uncertainty, Facebook has a nasty habit of making unilateral changes to the usage policies, effectively the contract it has with each Facebook user. While I was in the UK recently I heard about a musical instrument supplier. They have sold their goods through Amazon for many years, with Amazon taking about a seven percent commission.

That week, Amazon announced that it was getting into the musical instrument vending business itself. Coincidentally Amazon was also unilaterally doubling the commission it was charging to third party music instrument vendors.

So what do these anecdotes mean for people who have invested everything in ‘the cloud’ – the people who rely on Facebook, or Google apps, or Amazon, to be the ‘internet of everything’, for their livelihood?

How do you shift from one vendor to another? If their infrastructure is cutting out, or the terms of service becoming more and more unfavourable, or your ISP is favouring a competitor's traffic, or your clients are moving from one application to another (Bebo anyone?), how do you move? How do you get your data and applications transferred? Is the data you created even yours in the first place? The success of the cloud is also its massive failing – scale.

The scale of the cloud has pushed down costs and increased convenience significantly. But as Google's Vint Cerf points out, there are no accepted standards or protocols for cloud services and systems to store and exchange information and systems. With the huge scale that the internet has enabled comes an equally huge imbalance in the nature of the relationship between cloud service vendors and users.

The magnitude of the lock-in that users of cloud applications find themselves committed to far outweighs anything that has preceded the current phenomenon. So, what do we do? If the convenience of cloud services is impossible to ignore, then the pitfalls and potential for ‘all of business’ disasters should be evaluated and mitigated. To start with, your data should be available to you on a device of your choosing at any time and in an open format that can be easily recognised by different software systems.

This means you should be able to back up and download your data easily and at regular intervals.

Secondly, you should easily be able to transfer from one platform to another. The best way of achieving this is to ensure that whatever cloud service you are using is based on software that is free and open source. This is easier than you might imagine. For every Google app, Twitter, or Amazon web service, there is an open source alternative.

Most, if not all, of these also run as cloud services. Examples include Wordpress, Status. net, Teambox, RedMine, FengOffice and WikiMedia. Using open source cloud services ensures that transferring from one provider to another is not just possible, but straightforward. It also guarantees that your data can be processed if you decide you have to make the shift.