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The problem is that this concentration of power in the hands of a few creates problems for resilience and availability. "From an engineering standpoint, the downsides to this are the same things you get with monoculture in agriculture," says Labovitz. Ecosystems without genetic variation are the most vulnerable to being wiped out by a single virus. Similarly, as more of us depend on ever fewer sources for content, and get locked into proprietary technologies, we will become more susceptible to potentially catastrophic single points of failure.

That problem will only intensify with the ascendancy of the cloud, one of the biggest internet innovations of the past few years. The cloud is the nebulous collection of servers in distant locations that increasingly store our data and provide crucial services. It started with web mail services like Hotmail, which let you store your email on central servers rather than on the computer in front of you. The concept quickly spread. Last month, Apple announced the iCloud, a free service that will store all your music, photos, email, books and other data - and even apps - for seamless access via any Apple device, be that an iPhone, iPad or MacBook laptop.

Some companies have moved their entire IT departments into the cloud. Indeed, there are companies that barely exist outside the cloud: in addition to backing up data, Amazon lets internet-based companies rent space on its servers.

The cloud could generate exactly the single points of failure that the internet's robust architecture was supposed to prevent. And when those points fail, they may fail spectacularly. During an outage of Amazon's cloud service in April, when the company's servers went dark, entire companies briefly blinked out of existence. Cloud services also raise security concerns. "One big issue with being connected to the cloud is that a lot of information is in different places and shared," says Labovitz. "You no longer have one castle to protect. It's a much more distributed architecture, and a connected one. You just need one weak link."

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Welcome to the age of the splinternet - tech - 20 July 2011 - New Scientist
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