Last Friday, storms knocked out power for many in the D.C. metro area. Disruptions didn’t end there. Amazon Web Services, a cloud service provider, went down in the storm, taking several major companies’ websites and businesses offline.
Netflix, Instagram, and Pinterest, among others, also lost access to e-mail, applications, data, and other business services. While the disruption was brief, bugs in the system caused Amazon servers to spread the problem, leading to delays and disabling of services beyond the affected region.
Cloud computing is the movement of IT capabilities away from individual computers and servers to centralized providers that manage IT resources for their users via the Internet. But if the cloud cannot survive a thunderstorm, can it survive a dedicated cyber or physical attack?
There are good reasons to keep some services off the cloud, but worrying about disasters is not one of them. The Department of Defense, the National Security Agency, and other security services would be wise to keep highly sensitive information on their own servers. Even with the most secure cloud, the risk of losing even a small amount of information outweighs the benefits.
On the other hand, there are significant benefits to cloud computing. For most government agencies, the cloud would likely improve security, and any potential risks could be managed through proper contracts with the cloud provider.
Another major benefit is increased flexibility. Amazon shifted data and services to different cloud servers, albeit imperfectly, and restored most services within a few hours. If a normal server lost power, it would simply turn off, leaving employees without access to data or applications found on that server.
If a normal server got hit by a cyber or physical attack, information could be permanently lost. Since the cloud keeps its data on multiple servers at different geographic locations, even the complete disabling or destruction of one of these locations would not destroy all functionality, as other cloud servers could pick up the slack.
For most of the government, cloud computing can be wisely used to provide data storage, applications, and other services in a more efficient and secure way. By moving to the cloud in an orderly and organized way, the government can avoid many of the potential pitfalls in the cloud and fully realize its benefits.
In the cyber realm, there will always be failures and breaches; even without cloud computing, the federal government has its share of problems. Ultimately, whether it is on the cloud or on a private server, strong cybersecurity and a resilient electric grid are needed to keep computers going.