The unavoidable cloud (a ramble)

I’d written a post nearly a year ago about a mistrust I had of the cloud. By sprinkling one’s data across various provider’s cloud networks it breeds a lack of responsibility for one’s data. It makes it disposable (some argue this is good, why hold on to crap?). I still believe this to be true. Yet I’m beginning to think collecting all of one’s personal data on a private server may be an impossible ideal. It’s quite simple (and was indeed this simple to me when I’d written the original post). The servers that can actually power all your media reliably indefinitely are very expensive. The only media that you can reliably keep on a dedicated server that can be consumed comfortably is static (img, pdf and of course text).

The experience of listening to audio or video on a slow server is nearly intolerable. There’s a very high chance you’re going to give up. Media cloud servers like Amazon’s are great but I find it rather annoying to upload media through their tedious interface. I’d rather just do that in the comfort of my WordPress. Amazon is a pay per usage model. I’ve done this a few times and those nickels rack up pretty fast.

Enter the free cloud. YouTube beckons us. And SoundCloud gives us a taste for audio in the cloud (there is a ceiling on what you get for free). Now we’ve got Instagram hosting our photos (free). All these cloud services are social and often fun.

Guess what’s happening to me? Fragmentation. I started this blog to collect my online parts. Yet I remain pulled in a million directions. At least my text lives on my own database for which I am solely responsible for (as long as the hosting provider doesn’t drop the ball). Look at my widgets though. Most are just aggregators (with the exception of Twitter which I actually do archive to this site thanks to the wonderful HL Twitter plugin). I would like a plugin that could pull in my Instagrams directly into post formats on this site. The same for data. I don’t develop these types of apps but the fact that it’s so difficult to get a proper RSS for Instagram or see a live XML of scrobbles suggests to me that they just don’t want me to pull the data for myself. Why would they? These cloud applications provide amazing utility. More than we can hope for in the form of open source apps in many cases (at least for now).

But let me provide an example of what could happen to your precious media and data when you choose the cloud. We only need to look to Flickr. Do you still use Flickr as a social tool? I don’t. But for awhile it was a very convenient repository for images. Mainly because it had a good application for categorizing, tagging and distributing images. This made sense for our travel blog which we started at the end of 2008. Flickr hasn’t changed since that time. It’s not cheap either. The allure of Flickr slideshows is completely gone because the embeddable ones are Flash and thus completely useless on mobile devices. We have thousands of pictures nicely organized on Flickr. I believe I’ve found a WordPress plugin that can allow me to download my photos and regain the keys to the online display of our travel photos. But this is work. This is the cost when you invest your time, trust and data into the cloud. When it’s time to move you have quite a chore on your hands.

I don’t do much video these days. I think for video this existential problem becomes more palpable. You pretty much have to use YouTube or Vimeo so your videos will play smoothly. But if you just read my Flickr conundrum you may find the same issues when you’ve accumulated a wealth of data and  you’d like to move it. This is why in the long-run I think I’m much better off hosting it all, even the difficult media.

These days this is increasingly difficult. My tiny website can’t hope to run as fast as YouTube, Facebook or any of the others. It also seems redundant to keep a cloud copy and manually maintain personal copies of media. This is why I hope for more applications that utilize cloud app APIs which can auto-archive that difficult media back to my own site. This way you get all the speedy goodness of the cloud without being beholden to services when they become mediocre (Flickr).

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