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Networking Forecast: Cloudy, with a Chance of Indifference

My gut has always told me that cloud computing was a bad idea.  I recently lived through an example of how unfortunately right I was.

I run my own email server (which isn't terribly difficult) and needed better spam filtering than I had (which is difficult), so at the advice of some techie friends I decided to run my email through a popular online spam-filter service.  Normally I'm leery of having to write a check to someone every month just to keep my network running, but the price was quite reasonable, so I gave it a try, and it's worked well for me for a few years.  A couple of years ago, a large Internet-centric company acquired that anti-spam service.  I'm not naming names, but the company's got a motto that goes something like "Be good" and whose annual profit in dollars is a really big number, so heck, let's just call them

Anyway, recently tried to charge my credit card and for some reason couldn't get the charge approved, so they started deactivating my account.  Deactivation would eventually mean that I would no longer receive any incoming email unless I were to reconfigure my domain's MX records, which is a pretty easy thing to do, provided I knew to do it.  I had no clue that I needed to, however, because the only way that Bignumber communicates with its customers about this sort of thing is via a free email account in their cloud that Bignumber required me to get to keep the anti-spam service, and I honestly don't think to check that account very often. Had I been able to tell them to talk to me via, say, my Hotmail account, then I'd have known.  I'll spare you the details, but basically I'd been caught in a sort of situation wherein I needed to log onto an account to tell Bignumber to try the credit card again, but couldn't because I'd never used the account—apparently Bignumber created it a year or so ago for me and their other cloud-related customers—and so didn't know the account's password and, when I tried to retrieve the account's password, I was told that the account was deactivated and I couldn't re-activate it without the password.  Okay, it's sort of funny in a Brazil kind of way and frustrating to have lived through, but I bear Bignumber no ill will for that:  sometimes in online systems, Kafka-esque infinite loops happen.  (Heck, it's so true that there's probably a potentially successful t-shirt slogan in the making there.)

So what to do in a case like this, when the computers are being stupid?  Simple:  pick up the phone, talk to a human, and get the whole thing sorted out.  That's where things really went off the rails.  After finally getting a human on the phone, I explained the situation and asked to get someone on the phone who could revivify my account so that I could continue to give them some money every year in return for warding off junk emails.  The result was far more bizarre than my initial Catch-22, as the Bignumber employee explained to me that no one anywhere in the vast Bignumber enterprise would talk to me or any other customer about anything related to the anti-spam service.  I tried explaining the problem in a different way, appealed to our common humanity, begged her to intercede on my behalf, and asked to speak to her supervisor--actually, I engaged in about twenty minutes of explaining, appealing, begging and asking—and always got the same answer. It was sort of the 21st century cloud version of, "I'm sorry, Dave—I'm afraid I can't do that."

In the end, I just worked around the problem. (The good thing about running your own mail server means that you can have as many email addresses as you like, so I could easily just go sign up for the service with a different name.)  But it got me thinking:  what if I depended on this firm for more than just anti-spam?  Imagine what could have happened if I'd bought into the whole cloud computing idea and hosted my web and mail servers in their cloud.  Suppose also in the scenario that something caused the cloud vendor to disable those servers either through some mistake of their network techs or via some billing error. No one would even take my calls as I watched my now server-less business run down the drain?

In any case, that's never going to happen in my online business, as I can't see any way to guarantee my customers the sort of privacy that I promise them unless I run the servers myself.  (Try getting a cloud vendor to post a million dollar bond in the event that your customer data is compromised.)  But I'd ask my readers to consider this:  when the email server's down, would you rather beg your cloud vendor's customer service representative to help you, or tell the guy in your IT department who runs the email servers to get the silly thing fixed, and fixed now?

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