PRINCETON, N.J. - As Web-based "cloud computing" services become essential to Internet users and businesses, the operators of these services will need to improve their reliability and offer service-level agreements (SLAs) to define user expectations. That's the prediction of experts at "Computing in the Cloud," a workshop organized by the Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton University.
Some cloud-based services could become so vital that they become candidates for government regulation, according to panelists at the event, which was organized by Princeton professor Ed Felten, a popular blogger with expertise in Internet security and intellectual property.
While we are in the early stages of cloud computing - services that run in a Web browser and store information in a provider's data center - some of these services are already essential to their users. "People depend on these new technologies we're creating," said Jesse Robbins, a technologist and blogger at O'Reilly Radar. "When they go away, there's the potential for people to be hurt."
Jonathan Rochelle of Google (GOOG), the project manager for Google Docs and Spreadsheets, said the reliability of cloud-based services is improving and will improve more. "Capitalism is going to drive improvement," said Rochelle. "These (improvements) will come because consumers demand it."
The Role of SLAs
SLAs, which define a service provider's responsibilities for performance and uptime, are a big part of the solution. "Right now there's a lot of considered avoidance of SLAs," by some cloud service operators, said Rochelle, who predicted this would change.
Amazon (AMZN), which is seen as an innovator in cloud computing with its Amazon Web Services offerings, only recently adopted an SLA for its S3 storage service promising 99.9 percent uptime. Amazon implemented the agreement after an API outage on its EC2 utility computing service wiped out customer application data.
In some cases, SLAs must evolve to address unanticipated scenarios in a Web 2.0 world in which collaboration is a central theme. "There is no obvious ownership model on some of this stuff," said Rochelle, who cited an instance in which a document on Google Docs was jointly developed by 10 collaborators, only to have the account owner remove the document and close the account.
Robbins, who worked on the Hurricane Katrina relief effort in Hancock County, Mississippi, noted that the American Red Cross used Google Maps to deploy relief workers. At one point a Red Cross worker directed him to drive across the I-90 bridge. Robbins informed them that it had been destroyed during the storm. "No it wasn't," he was told over the phone. "I can see it right here on Google Maps."
While end users need to understand the limitations of cloud-based tools, Robbins said it's crucial that "platform builders accept their responsibilities as stewards and guardians to those who depend upon them for their everyday lives."
Building Big and Fast
The implications of privacy, security and civics in the cloud are not always fully considered during the development of a service. That's problematic because of the speed at which some of these "platform play" services are growing.
"Everyone who is trying to get into utility computing is getting big fast," said Robbins. "There are these old web hosting companies that will disappear. They're going to go away and be replaced by services like Amazon S3 and EC2 and 3Tera and eventually Google and Microsoft. They're all trying to get as big as they can as fast as they can to win the platform play. This is going to create lock-in.
"The big companies are going to be viewed as either monopolies or utilities, both of which are regulated," said Robbins. "None of the innovators think of themselves becoming regulated companies."
Government Scrutiny Inevitable
Reihan Salam, associate editor of The Atlantic Monthly, agreed that some web-based services will venture into areas that will invite government scrutiny. He mentioned 23andMe which intends to offer genome research to individuals for less than $1,000, creating the potential to "completely destroy the private insurance market as we know it."
"The role of government is going to have to become bigger," Salam said. "There are going to be applications we can't even imagine."
Rochelle said the shift to cloud computing will ultimately be driven by business considerations, as it holds the prospect of higher margins for vendors and lower costs for customers. "I'm a big believer in computing in the cloud," he said. "I feel strongly that the value is there, and that value will drive the model."