See things clearly

Is cloud computing ‘as safe as flying’?

Dennis Howlett blogged the other day about “Cloud computing advantages”, promoting the view that cloud is ‘as safe as flying.’


He uses a letter to The Economist written by Prof. Milo Martin to support the point.


Prof Martin compares cloud computing to commercial aviation, and compares car travel to internal IT systems.  He argues that, when things go wrong in aviation/cloud it’s all over the news, but because car crashes/internal IT failures are common place no-one notices: 

“Although the frequent down times of companies’ internal IT systems are less publicised, these down times almost certainly cause more harm and lost productivity in aggregate (like car accidents.)


Air travel makes people uncomfortable, in part because of a loss of control, no matter how well trained and experienced the pilot may be. Similarly organizations fear cloud computing preferring to ‘be behind the wheel.’ Yet transportation statistics show that desire can be misguided.


Aviation had its share of hype and detractors, but no one would argue that it has not transformed travel. I predict the once the dust settles, cloud computing will be no less transformational.”

But is this comparison between air travel and cloud computing justified?


I think it misses a fundamental issue. 


Over decades, air travel has been designed, engineered, analysed, regulated, standardised and optimised. 


Industry-wide, cloud computing doesn’t have the same degree of understanding, and that’s why, post Sony and Amazon, I think we will see many more cloud outages of varying complexity, impact and cost. [more]


And it doesn’t matter whether we talk about internal/on-premise IT provision or a provision of computing utility offered from the cloud, as neither of these undergo the same regulatory, manufacturing or operational rigor that air travel labours under.


The air travel industry has a very granular understanding of how every component from the smallest rivet to the largest turbine blade is put together to enable a plane to fly with the minimum of risk.   75,000 engineering drawings were used to produce the first 747.  A 747-400 has six million parts.  And each type of part is documented, engineered and tested rigorously before it is signed off.


Standards bodies like the European Aviation Safety Agency and its equivalents around the world ‘…promote the highest common standards of safety and environmental protection in civil aviation...’


Regulators demand that the airlines mitigate failure by understanding both the interdependencies of the component parts in airplanes and how systems interact.  As a result, the number of standards with which airlines have to comply is enormous.  They cover, for example, everything from “Aircraft Tire Pressure Monitoring Systems” to “Testing Methods for Air Cargo Unit Load Devices”.


Physical assets are not the only things that are highly regulated in the industry.  There are also standards for activities like Flight Crew Licensing and numerous types of technical training.


There is a simple reason for this rigorous approach to managing air travel – it is very dangerous.


But I think it’s fair to say that air travel has a great safety record, considering what it involves.


In contrast, cloud computing lacks the clarity of the airline industry.  As James Staten, principal analyst at Forrester  Research, says:

“Now there are so many categories of cloud computing and so many competing standards that users have a good chance of finding a standard that matches a particular need, but not much chance of moving among them easily.”

Today as governments, businesses, and individuals we are increasingly reliant on flows of data, in nearly all aspects of our daily lives.  Which means it is becoming ever more essential that standards for these flows of data are agreed and regulated.


An umbrella body, the Cloud Industry Group, supports

“…a credible and certifiable Code of Practice that provides transparency of Cloud services such that consumers can have clarity and confidence in their choice of provider…”

But as the airline industry shows, clarity is achieved only when we can see clearly and communicate easily how everything is put together to make the business work.


Cloud has a long way to travel before it can be considered ‘as safe as flying’.


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