Cloud computing: the invisible infrastructure that underpins network communication and the digital experience, representing the amalgamation of virtualisation and automation (Carstensen et al., 2012). Invisibility might create the perception of equality and effectiveness, but does cloud computing really mirror these two characteristics? Or are we as online users relinquishing ownership and access to our own data for the sake of convenience and ease?
“What is Cloud Computing?” Amazon Web Services share their own simple take on this innovative phenomenon.
Cloud computing concepts have existed for decades, becoming the catalyst for transformation within technology and the everyday digital experience. Cloud concepts have evolved from mainframe computing in the 1950s, to what we know today. Coined in 1996 within a Compaq internal document, cloud computing by mid 1990s represented the new digital sphere (Neto, 2014), evolving from grid to utility computing, and offering access to IT resources anywhere, anytime. Historically, telecommunication companies and technology giants have been instrumental in the advancements and capitalism of this innovation.
However, today the cloud prompts a cultural and geopolitical shift, tilting control and governance away from the United States, towards the European Union and BRICS countries. While it transforms our online experience in unexpected ways, fostering innovation in entertainment, finance, social networking, healthcare, and politics, it is not without sacrifice, often at a cost to our own security and privacy, with the rigidity of architectural structures diminishing our user flexibility. Indeed, not all internet users equally experience the benefits and risks caused by this desire and addiction towards greater knowledge and communication (Reading & Notley, 2015).
What Technological Developments mean for the Cloud
The emergence of web 2.0, the evolution of the smartphone with 3.2 billion users worldwide (O’Dea, 2020), and the development and increased usage of social media by 3.48 billion users (Chaffey, 2020), have led to an astronomical increase in data creation and storage. These three trends in internetworked communication and media management are responsible for 90% of the world’s data that has been generated in the past 2 years alone (Marr, 2018). Increasing by the day, we now produce 2.5 quintillion bytes of data daily. This online production and consumption depicts the very need for cloud computing, fostering remote internet connection and storage to meet increasing technology user demands.
A Geographical Shift in Internet Governance
While cloud computing fosters our ability as users to produce and share content online at an unprecedented level and speed, we are not the only ones at an advantage. Technology giants have been instrumental in the advancements to internet imperialism, profiting off these technological advancements through their own product offerings. Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft and Google accounted for 93% of all CDN traffic in 2017 (Winseck, 2017). Cloud computing proves necessary perhaps now more than ever before, given the current state of global affairs, that have seen transformative changes to work, life and school, a consequence of COVID-19.
Microsoft reported huge growth subsequent to companies moving towards remote working, increasing revenue by 15%, and operating and net income by 25% (Suhag, 2020). Amazon Web Services also benefited from this change, with international sales up 18% for Q2 2020 (Suhag, 2020). However, while these players dominate the middle and top layers of the internet, including search engines and social networks, internet ownership and control are tilting away from the US and towards the EU and BRICS countries, as they govern the hardware and material infrastructure of the internet (Winseck, 2017). Submarine cable system owners and operators have diversified in nature, and telecommunication companies are regulating this industry worldwide (Winseck, 2017).
However, today telecommunication companies are accompanied by the US-based internet giants, who have built international submarine cable systems of their own to meet these geographical changes. Despite this, the internet remains in the realm of BRICS countries and the Global South, with internet usage shifting from two-thirds living in the US in 1996, to 11% in 2016 (Winseck, 2017). As a result, Google acquired stakes in the SJC, a $400 million system of transpacific cables, with Facebook following, taking a $450 million ownership stake with 11 partners across Asia (Winseck, 2017), mirroring the new internet dynamics in attempts to maintain their existing positions. Thus, while many corporations benefit from the cloud, the control and governance of the internet spreads globally, perhaps even to space, exhibiting a multitude of internets worldwide, rather than a singular one.
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— AFSA Infosystems Pvt. Ltd. (@Afsainfosystems) October 23, 2020
The Business of Cloud Computing
Cloud computing, both on and off-premises, is largely implemented by businesses, with many reporting benefits in economics, simplification and convenience post implementation, reducing the expenses of purchasing, installing and maintaining apps locally (Lahiri & Moseley, 2013). Indeed, of new US businesses in 2016, 69% attributed productivity growth, 60% time savings, and 40% expense reduction to cloud computing (Barker, 2016). Dell reports that companies that invest in big data, cloud and security are likely to experience 53% faster revenue growth than competitors (Pevehouse & Morrison, 2015). Cloud computing also benefits global employment within IT, with over 18 million cloud-dependent jobs globally (Barker, 2016).
Indeed, I personally fall within this cohort of employment, greatly affected by the cloud in my current employment role, but also in regards to the broad network access required for my remote working conditions. With many organisations maintaining on-premise storage due to higher confidence in their own environment, my workplace utilises both on and off-premise cloud computing services to foster our agile methodology. Collaborative platforms, such as Confluence, are used to share project knowledge efficiently and with ease of access company-wide, becoming a database of all prior and current projects. Microsoft OneDrive provides scalable storage, and Teams and Webex foster communicative and constant discussions.
On an educational level, I utilise the public cloud through GoogleDocs and Dropbox, optimising my personal storage capabilities and assuring the security of my files, while enabling cost savings as I no longer need to purchase a high storage laptop or external hard drives. On a private level, I have an iPhone, and due to the architectural rigidity of companies like Apple, am bound to iCloud, inhibiting my flexibility to Cloud options and thus my choice to privately store data. Given highly publicised cases of iCloud hackings, for example 36 year old Ryan Collins who procured 40 celebrity iCloud accounts, and leaked their personal photos and videos (Campbell, 2016), privacy and security risks of cloud computing platforms continue to plague the digital experience today.
Dangers of Invisibility
Thus, regardless of the aforementioned benefits, cloud computing raises numerous concerns. Off-premise servers require data to be outsourced to third party providers, raising issues of data accessibility. Is data stored locally or in foreign countries (Carstensen et al., 2012), and who is responsible for this security? Indeed, the cloud makes cyberattacks easier, not only on the corporate level, but the individual level. Internet of Things devices create vulnerability within our own homes, such as smart TVs and speakers. The Australian Cyber Security Centre responded to 2,266 cyber security incidents between just January and April alone (“ACSC Annual Report,” 2020).
At work I regularly receive spear phishing emails. For employees who fail to understand these forms of cyberattacks, an entire company’s data is at risk. Indeed, in the past security practices were predicated on the quality of a physical and static computing environment. With cloud computing, this radically changes, and businesses are required to approach security in new ways (Carstensen et al., 2012). My workplace runs cybersecurity training for new employees, encrypts both data and the network to protect against cyber threats, and employs trained cloud security professionals. Ultimately, cloud computing calls for a transformation within security, ensuring there is support for these newly dynamic and shared infrastructures.
Thus, cloud computing has transformed technology, the online user experience, and the realm of work, education and business today. Overtime, the nature of the cloud has evolved to meet changing technological demand, benefiting us as users through convenience and ease, while simultaneously requiring a relinquishment of privacy and security. Internet control and governance is shifting geographically, highlighting the wide-ranging effects of cloud computing, not just on an individual level, but a political and economic one.
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