Sunday, October 24, 2010

Where Is Your Online Information?...

On what server is your information?  Is it in this country?  It is safe?  If you are a corporation, could a foreign corporation gain access to your trade secrets or strategy?
Some may not know what a server is.  Here is as good as definition as any:
A server computer is a computer, or series of computers, that link other computers or electronic devices together. They often provide essential services across a network, either to private users inside a large organization or to public users via the internet. For example, when you enter a query in a search engine, the query is sent from your computer over the internet to the servers that store all the relevant web pages. The results are sent back by the server to your computer.  Many servers have dedicated functionality such as web servers, print servers, and database servers. Enterprise servers are servers that are used in a business context.***
Here is an estimate of the number of servers owned by major technology companies in the world.  This information is approximate, since many companies hold their servers in high security and will not reveal precise information about their locations for fear of infrastructure attacks.
graph produced by Plus Ultra Technologies LLC.

Where is the Web Cloud?
Before we begin this discussion, we should first define what a "web cloud" is.

Users do not really know where their data is being stored.  It might not necessarily be in the United States.  Since the Patrioc Act was passed, many companies outside the United States do not even consider the United States as a place to store their digital information in web cloud services, because of the ease with which the American government can conduct searches, without a warrant.

When we first began considering this article, we were going to concentrate on how unsafe your information might be because it sat on foreign computer server in some other country.  But after the research was done, it appears that most are concerned about their data when it is kept on American data centers.  The two countries which seem to stand out when it comes to the security of your information are the United States and China.  By the security of your information we mean that it is in those two countries where the government has the greatest facility in scanning private information without search warrants or informing the user that the surveillance is occurring.  Bill Thompson, writing for BBC states this way:
"...all the rhetoric and promotional guff the 'cloud' is no such thing: every piece of data is stored on a physical hard drive or in solid state memory, every instruction is processed by a physical computer and the every network interaction connects two locations in the real world. It is often useful to conceptualise online activities as cyberspace, the place behind the screen, but the internet is firmly of the real world, and that is one of the greatest problems facing cloud computing today. In the real world national borders, commercial rivalries and political imperatives all come into play, turning the cloud into a miasma as heavy with menace as the fog over the Grimpen Mire that concealed the Hound of the Baskervilles in Arthur Conan Doyle's story.**
An classic example of this problem of where the data centers with your information are is the case of the countries banning Blackberry phones. Although this ban was averted at the last minute by politicking on the part of the United States government and RIM, the reason for the ban was because the information that might be sent on those phones would not be accessible to the governments were the user was in.  You will see in this chart found here, that Blackberries have their own proprietary encryption system which no one but RIM can decode.
click to enlarge
The idea that your information might be in a different country is further established by the tendency that some of the services that provide cloud computing may move information around from one server to another to save costs in electricity or even to avoid certain national regulations that might increase their legal obligations.*  This would be done through VMWARE's advertised feature called V-Motion.  Some these claims about the ease of these movements may be overstated however.

VMWARE is a company that emulates any software or operating system remotely (virtualization), allowing the users to run any program or operating system from any computer connected to VMWARE's servers.
A virtual machine is a tightly isolated software container that can run its own operating systems and applications as if it were a physical computer. A virtual machine behaves exactly like a physical computer and contains it own virtual (ie, software-based) CPU, RAM hard disk and network interface card (NIC). An operating system can’t tell the difference between a virtual machine and a physical machine, nor can applications or other computers on a network. Even the virtual machine thinks it is a “real” computer. Nevertheless, a virtual machine is composed entirely of software and contains no hardware components whatsoever. As a result, virtual machines offer a number of distinct advantages over physical hardware.****
Tom Bittman, VP of VMWARE explains the differences between "private clouds" (a companies own web cloud for their private information) and "public web clouds" like Google Docs.


This whole article is intended to highlight the tension that exists between the desires of national governments for control and the internet's inherent nature to share and reveal.  We are not sure how this tension will be resolved.  We suspect that these two forces will be forever in conflict.

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