Why the all famous “cloud” is not an answer?

Edit: Seems like my post is irrelevant since there are projects like Tahoe-LAFS and Ceph.

Being lucky to own a new machine capable of running multiple virtual systems, I have decided to try few of them I wasn’t able to easily install and use before. Being a hardcore Linux user, but not inclined to bash Microsoft or any other operating system vendor right out of the box (hey, Windows 7 is not that bad after all), I have tried few Linux distros I wasn’t very familiar with and also this new Windows 8 Developer Preview.

Since I am a familiar with and really like Mandriva I’ve decided to give this new Mandriva 2011 a spin. I’ve downloaded new Ubuntu, Fedora, Arch, Mageia and some other distros also just to try and see if any of them really are being that much different from the others. I wanted to see the progress in Linux and other operating systems as I haven’t got touch with other systems than XP, Mandriva and Gentoo recently.

I won’t go into details of each and every OS I have tested, but I want to share with you some thoughts about the direction and general progress in evolution of operating systems in general. My feelings are not very positive I might say.

I’m currently using Mandriva 2010.2 mostly. My server is running multiple Gentoo installations over a VMWare hypervisor. Those two distros are two different worlds and both have their pros and cons, but so far they did the job for me. Mandriva 2010.2 is really good desktop and laptop distro.

Gentoo makes pretty good server system – however I have some objections. Those objections are that you have to put significant amount of time to maintain your system. Time that is precious for me and I just want things to work and update as they should. Without spending hours for simple system upkeep. I’m a business person and I’m calculating my time economically. Gentoo is really cool system and I find it very satisfying and pleasant to use – when you have time. I don’t, but unfortunatelly I must somehow stick to it for the time being – lacking any real alternative that would offer that much stability and speed. Gentoo, if maintained properly, is fast. It’s customizable to the point no other distro can be. However when you’re a business conscious person I would not recommend to use it on daily basis. Too much knowledge and time must be put into simple upkeep and maintenance.

Mandriva is really great distribution for daily use, but I would think twice about using it on the server. Why? Because there were some outstanding critical security bugs that lead to compromise of my server machines not once, but few times. I wouldn’t have anything against it if patches were provided in a reasonable time, but honestly. Waiting half a year for fixing critical security bug in ProFTPD was way too much. Mandriva is also a distro which longevity (i.e. support time) is way too short for a real production server.

Of course. It has many security features out-of-the-box. I like msec and the way it’s configured from the start. I like it’s so uninstrusive for a power user and doesn’t get in the way when you want to accomplish some more advanced things without all those druid crap getting in the way. It just plays nicely and I’m really, really amazed by how Mandriva found balance between ease of use and needs of power users. They had their ups and downs, but this distro was really solid for most of the time. I have used many different distributions, but I always was amazed that in Mandriva most of the time everything worked. I liked it’s logical layout of configuration files and interoperation between editing configs by hand and by druids. Something Debianbased distros (including Ubuntu) could only dream of. Despite the fact that the OS was never pretty and I must admit it lacked taste when it came down to fancy user experience, it was still very rock solid. There were some great tools that Mandriva offered like msec, mcc and relevant drak*/*drake utilities and URPMi which I still find superior to any other package manager, maybe except for Gentoo’s emerge.

I’m still using MDV 2010.2 and honestly I’m a little bit disappointed that I’d have to stick to it for the nearest future. I simply find that this system is the most rock solid distro ever. For now. I did some certifications from Novell, so I also know SLES and SLED. Those are not bad distros indeed and when you take into account some of the tools Novell built, you have to say that they are really good choice for an enterprise network. Somehow I’ve always found SuSE really messy distro. They have their own ways of doing things which I personally don’t like.SuSE without Novell stuff is just too chaotic and inconsistent. Nevertheless Novell OES2 is a great business system which is stable and reliable. However I don’t find SuSE based management tools too attractive or even useful sometimes. Zypper is nowhere near URPMi. I know it’s a little bit more focused on tech-heads, but I always found it distracting that Novell tools are made by engineers for engineers and not for your ordinary next-door admin. I being a highly technical person, find it somehow too overwhelming and not pleasant to work with. Sure. I’m amazed by technical superiority of SLES over other distros, but honestly – technical superiority doesn’t mean it has to be technically impossible to manage without engineer level of knowledge. Sure. I can manage it, but people who are not into IT for twenty years, but have some good knowledge should be able to manage it too. Simply. Using and managing Novell systems is not fun at all. And your daily work should not only be pleasant, but also productive. Novell tools are technically superior to other solutions, but are just too hard to use for an ordinary person. And technical person also has to invest significant time into getting the idea of how things tick. That shouldn’t be this way.

I’m a person who likes doing things my way, but I don’t want to invest much time for getting knowledge of all the tips and tricks to make things work my way. Configuring your system should be pretty straightforward and when you want to tackle with parts of the system on a more advanced level, system shouldn’t get into your way, allow you to configure and manage things the way you want, but without any overhead of unncecessary technical details and stealing your time for learning really unnecessary things. After all computer is just a tool for getting things done and if you are like me, not a technical marvel to praise and invest all of your time for exploring it’s nuances, quirks and technicalities when it’s really unnecessary.

Since a computer and in fact the underlaying operating system is the key to your experience we are slowly getting to the point of this elaborate. For me productivity is the most valuable thing. I’m running a small company and I don’t want to invest time in managing my systems. I work with many clients who treat computer as a tool and not their toy. Time is what counts. I don’t want to be managing all the technical stuff and since I’m working with many clients I have some experience that they do not care about their updates, anti-virus scanning, backups, system configuration or management. They only care about how they can do their work with their computer and their operating system. Most of my clients treat IT as necessary evil, but still evil. Most of my clients can’t afford a dedicated network administrator or full-blown IT department. And I share their beliefs. Ordinary operating system user should get to the computer, do his work and leave. Not caring about all the technical details or computer/OS management stuff. For many years I have seen that most of open source community (and IT in general) is simply forgetting this. Client treats computer/OS as a tool, not as a thing of admiration. No matter how much we love all the intricate details of how those binary logic things tick, ordinary user doesn’t share it. And we shouldn’t rebel. We have to accept it, that not everyone can find the beauty in IT, nor does he want to know anything about the technical details of his own operating system. Nevermind it’s so beautiful, simple and logical for us. It’s a little bit arrogant of us, IT guys, to force our knowledge and admiration on those poor souls who doesn’t understand the art of IT. And it’s us to shame, not them. Because we thought our way is the only way that should be taught to others. It’s not. And it’s a tragedy of IT and open source community as a whole that most of us don’t understand this.

I will stress this once again. Ordinary user wants to do his work on his operating system. Computer is just a tool. And honestly as a technical person with a background of network administrator and software developer, not to mention an owner of the company – I want to do my work with my computer and do it as productively as I can. That’s why I care about offloading tedious and really mostly uninteresting work from my shoulders. I want my operating system to be able to do most of the ordinary management automatically. I don’t want to care about backups, synchronization, antivirus sweeps, updates and such things when I really have to do my work. And do it quickly.

So there was an idea. Big companies and the industry thought. Hey! Why don’t we do this by pushing more and more to the cloud? We can keep our users updated, synchronized whereever they want to be, on whatever device they like. We can scan their files to see if they are not infected, ensure their data is always available and they will enjoy the benefits of (marketing bullshit) cloud. And we will slowly force everybody towards Software-as-a-Service upon which we can monetize (not to mention we will get knowledge of everything about them – who will guarantee we won’t). Right?

Wrong. In my opinion IT industry got it wrong. There are many objections to the cloud which we all know. Privacy and data security being one of the most significant concerns. Let me express my opinion it this way. Industry got the right problem, but they provide the wrong solution. Of course many will praise that it’s the way, but I won’t discuss their motives. I have just recently installed Ubuntu and Windows 8. What I’m seeing? Two most significant operating systems (except MacOS, but I’m not familiar with it) are subtly forcing it’s users to use their clouds. We all know about those privacy invasions done by mobile phone operating systems – guess what they will do with all your private or company data offloaded to the cloud. Who will guarantee that your data is properly stored, inaccessible to others, etc.? Knowledge is power. You’d better not hand your data right away to the corporation you have no control over. After all corporations are known to be handing over data about you to security agencies or using it against people who can endanger them. Corporations are entities making profit of their shareholders. Who can guarantee that your innovative technological company won’t interfere with their plans to dominate some part of the market you are competing with them? Cloud is dangerous.

But I’m not going to elaborate more on this issue. I’m sure if you’re interested in the topic you already know those problems with the cloud. Cloud is a centralisation of power and knowledge about it’s users in one invisible hand. Why open source community should be on high alert when hearing “cloud”? Because it’s against one of the most significant principles of the community itself. Open source was and I hope still is about freedom. Freedom of communication, freedom to share, freedom to express, freedom to innovate, freedom to creatively express oneself. It’s not about the software. It’s about art. It’s about the humanistic ecosystem that was built around the software. It’s about exchange of thoughts and ideas, improvement and striving for excellence. Even if it manifests itself only in software development.

Cloud is against the open source’s inherited ideal of decentralisation, of Bazaar. Cloud is the next level of Cathedral. You may own the free bazaar software, but you will be forced to use cathedral cloud – one or another, but still in the hands of one or another entity. I’m really surprised that the community doesn’t raise objections to this matter. Take it this way. It’s an issue like Napster or Kazaa vs Bittorrent. Cloud is a centralised entity. No matter there are many clouds. They all have one weakness – a controlling entitiy. Just like Napster or Kazaa was one day. Bittorent on the other hand is decentralised. And that is what we need. We don’t need clouds. We need SWARMS.

What is a SWARM? It’s a decentralised cloud. No single entity controls it. It’s a community thing. A SWARM is voluntary cloud. It’s a concept of encrypted, decentralised storage allowing synchronisation of your data in a secure manner. Much like Bittorent is a peer to peer network of data exchange, so is SWARM to synchronization. Of course SWARM poses significant technical difficulties to develop. But I’m sure there are many brilliant minds that can and ultimately will overcome problems with this concept.

How I would see the SWARM implementation? It may be global distributed filesystem. It may be a distributed database. Data synchronised with the SWARM may be distributed to active SWARM nodes and replicated on purpose. I imagine a daemon that would be running on each and every SWARM participating node that would give up some resources for the whole SWARM. Think of it as a server running on each SWARM node providing for example 100MB of storage space to the SWARM. The amount of data you can store in the SWARM would be determined by your participation of resources for the SWARM. Security of your data would be guaranteed by strong cryptography and chunking of your data. Like in Freenet, nobody will know what his SWARM node is storing and to whom this data belongs.

Unfortunately there are some problems with this, Freenet storage is based on popularity of the requested content. There are more problems. Which nodes should receive your chunk of data? How the data should be distributed and replicated? How many nodes should receive a copy of your chunk synchronised with the SWARM? How the SWARM should cope with data loss or significant loss of storage providing SWARM nodes? Should your node track copies of your data and if it looses some of the nodes synchronised to your data, how should it decide to distribute replication of your data? How to ensure you can always reach your data if we must assume tha SWARM nodes are unreliable? How to deal with contraction of node count hosting copies of your data? How much data can you store in the SWARM at any given time?

If the SWARM is going to be a real project those and other questions must be answered first. Due to it’s chaotic and unreliable nature it would be hard or even impossible to devise algorithms that will guarantee the availability of your data all the time. It may be necessary to loosen some of the restrictions on SWARM concept. However the idea might find it’s way to some private environments where SWARM might be an attractive alternative for non-controllable cloud.

If you want to talk about the SWARM concept with me feel free to do so in the comments section.

About Wolverine

If you are looking for IT consultant, let me know! karol at karoltomala dot REMOVE com Just remove the REMOVE word from the e-mail above!
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