Richard Stallman, the founder of the Free Software Foundation, stated the other day that he thought Cloud Computing was stupid and we were all being duped by the cloud vendors. Specifically, in an interview with London's Guardian newspaper, he said, ""It's stupidity. It's worse than stupidity: it's a marketing hype campaign," he told The Guardian. I was surprised by this response because as the economy worsens, it seems to me the Cloud is actually a safe haven where you can continue to operate without worrying about expensive infrastructure investments. On a consumer level it gives you access to free web-based apps like GMail, which by the way millions of people including many Linux users, are happily using. Sounds like a worthy trade-off, and dare I say, smart, doesn't it? Well, Stallman isn't alone in this belief.

Politics Make Strange Bedfellows

When they say politics makes strange bedfellows, never was there a truer statement than as the Guardian article points out, Stallman was actually echoing an earlier statement from none other than Larry Ellison of Oracle, two fellows who couldn't be more different. Yet Ellison, who probably has more at stake than personal philosophy referred to the Cloud in these terms. "...Maybe I'm an idiot, but I have no idea what anyone is talking about. What is it? It's complete gibberish. It's insane. When is this idiocy going to stop?" Wow, and here I was thinking that GMail was pretty cool and it turns out I'm just an idiot who is getting duped by a marketing campaign.

I will grant both these computer industry giants that the phrase "Cloud Computing" is indeed a buzz word of the highest degree and without context, it is a meaningless term. Buzz words get floated like so much flotsam and jetsam until they lose any relationship to the original meaning, but with all due respect to both these gentlemen, cloud computing simply refers to web-based applications. You don't have to load a client on your PC to run GMail. You don't have to invest in expensive infrastructure to subscribe to It's not that complicated. I'm not sure what's so hard for Ellison to understand. Nor does it seem stupid. Maybe I'm missing something, but to me it seems to be an intelligent and reasonable approach to computing, especially in a fragile economy.

Let's Look at it Another Way
To get a different perspective on this, I asked Mickey Panayiotakis, who is an IT consultant with more than 15 years industry experience what he thought about all this, and he doesn't get what the big deal is. "The principle of cloud computing is nothing new: shared servers, shared hosting, SaaS, commodity computing, utility pricing etc, have been around in some form or another for a long time. Now it has a new name, and this name implies that we don't have to worry about the hardware, the resources, the machine limitations: it's just there in some flexible extensible nebulous cloud" He adds, "But whether the next iteration will be called "cloud" or something else, shared computing is good for everyone, from the data center to the environment."

Maybe we are just dealing with an issue of semantics. Could it be that Ellison and Stallman simply don't like the phrase "Cloud Computing?" Maybe they would be happier if we called it something else. You can call it whatever you like, but in an uncertain economic times free and low-cost tools and software you can implement without investing in expensive hardware looks like a good bet, not stupidity or idiocy. It all depends on whom you ask though.

I think Stallman needs a day off. Cloud Computing, by whatever name it's known, is the future of computing.

Hey Ken. He's out on front on a lot of things, but I agree, he is off base with this one. I know there are privacy concerns, but the Cloud isn't going anywhere. It's just too convenient.

As I read it, Stallman's concern goes beyond privacy to the concentration of power on the Internet. Just as we have recently seen what happens when we trust our money to a few enormous banks and brokers, we could easily see enormous dislocations as result of even a minor outage by a Google, a Yahoo, or a Microsoft. What happens if there is a major dislocation, for example if one of the major data providers goes the way of Lehman Brothers, Enron, or Arthur Anderson? What is the ripple effect if we have fully embraced "cloud computing"? And this does not even touch on the privacy implications of the government's trolling the Internet with programs like Carnivore; or the need for a high level of security for classified data on the part of the government and defense contractors, who I assume are unlikely to entrust classified information to "the cloud."

We are often reminded that the Internet's original planned resilience even in the face of massive military attack was the result of its decentralization. Cloud computing is a trend in the opposite direction. While I remain a happy user of the many fine products and services offered by Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft, I am also a big fan of redundancy and decentralization, and I try to retain as much control as possible of my data on my own box. If we are going to embrace the (perhaps questionable) notion that freedom requires a gun in every home, why not the much sounder notion that freedom requires a server in every home and business?

Great points and I don't disagree with you. Perhaps that's what he was getting at, but I don't see any company giving up total control of all its data to the Cloud. It's not going to happen. There are privacy laws. There are other laws such as HIPPA and Sarbanes Oxley that wouldn't allow that as currently written (even if a company wanted to do that, and I don't think many would).

I think in time we will see the cloud as one piece in the computing arsenal. I don't see it as the be all and end all of data collection, but I do think it's a certainly a valid approach. I sent John Newton, who is CTO at Alfresco, an open source content management vendor, some questions the other day about the future of Cloud computing, and I plan to post his answers some time soon. He has some interesting ideas on how to address these issues you bring up. Thanks again for your thoughtful answer. I appreciate you taking the time to leave such a detailed comment.

My take on it is that the criticism of cloud computing is in three main points;

Security: Aside from the risk of the servers that store your information being compromised, every time you send information from one computer to another (especially using questionably secure connections) there's a risk it will fall in the hands of a third party.

Connectivity: If you get to into the habit of accessing your files on the cloud you don't keep proper copies, what happens if I expected the hotel I'm staying at for the weekend to have internet and now I can't get to my Google documents to finish that project?

Cost: For a residential user most of these cloud systems are free or cost effective, and they make sense for a lot of medium and large businesses as well, but like any other purchase a business must weigh the pros and cons before making a commitment. I worked for jewelery company that has 5 stores and a mail order office spread out over 5 states, Netsuite did wonders for bringing together our inventory and charging system. But a small business that has one office and a handful of employees could easily pay $50-$100 per/month/person that's easily 250-500/month to handle single location sales and inventory you could handle with a $400 server and software ranging from free to $1k, Is the cloud really benefiting a bait and tackle shop in Nebraska the same way it benefits a multi-location mail-order business?

People are not talking about Gmail, or even residential web-based apps, when they bad mouth cloud computing. Email has been web-accessible for as long as I can remember, and web-based storage has been common for quite some time as well. The criticism is of SAAS and decentralizing services that have traditionally been in-house for a profit.

As a closing note; SAAS is easier to set up, especially in multi-office businesses, but a good network engineer can do the same thing. When you shell out the monthly fee for SAAS you're sacrificing customization for ease of use and making prioritizing low set-up costs over recurring expense.

Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts in such detail. I could probably give a counter argument for each of your points, but I will say this, for small businesses, Cloud computing and SaaS makes a lot of sense. Most small businesses don't have the IT staff and it is more cost-effective to go with a service leaving the business owner to deal with running the business instead of worrying about computer infrastructure management.

Thanks again for your detailed comments. This is turning into a great discussion about the pros and cons of Cloud Computing. And as I say, in the form of a tease, expect more on this subject in the coming days.