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Cloud computing shows its vulnerable side

It has been a bad couple of weeks for cloud computing – the term used to describe the hosting of digital services, applications and databases on remote servers and networks.

First, the giant online retailer Amazon – which also happens to be one of the biggest cloud computing providers – started experiencing outages, which originated in its east coast data center located in Virginia. The outages quickly spread, taking down thousands of web sites, including Reddit, Four Square, and Twitter client Hootsuite.

After several days and a storm of bad publicity, Amazon did manage to restore most services but not before admitting that a large amount of customer data was not “fully recoverable.”

Next came news of an attack on Sony’s PlayStation Network, the video gaming and entertainment hub which serves more than 77 million customers. After being caught completely by surprise, the Japanese company was forced to take down the network and it’s likely to be several more days before its back online.

In a Friday press appearance that was frequently punctuated with apologies, top Sony executive Kaz Hirai revealed that as many as 10 million credit card numbers may have been stolen in the attack. He advised all PlayStation Network customers to regularly check their credit card statements and remain vigilant about possible identity theft.

Inevitably, the problems at Amazon and Sony have posed some serious questions about the future of cloud computing. For many corporations, the whole idea behind cloud computing is to eliminate concerns about data centers or scaling systems to meet growth; all that should be taken care of by the cloud partner. The realization that the cloud partner could have data center issues of their own could well make executives think long and hard about continuing with such a strategy.

Consumers have similarly been asked to put all their faith in the cloud. Whether it’s Gmail, Facebook, or photo-sharing services like Flickr, we are increasingly trusting our business and personal data to unknown servers in far-off places.

Advocates of cloud computing will argue that the alternatives have their own problems, whether it’s the hardware failures that plague local IT departments or the viruses and bugs that inhabit our desktops and laptops. And besides, our addiction to mobile devices – and their almost complete dependence on cloud-based services – is not going to reverse the cloud computing trend anytime soon.

But the Amazon and Sony stories are timely wake-up calls for those corporations and individuals that were starting to regard cloud computing as something magical and immune to all the usual online threats. Nothing could be further from the truth. In many ways, the more control you give up, the more vulnerable you become.

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