The Cloud is Dead. Long Live the Cloud.

The much-publicized collossal cockup over at Microsoft regarding T-Mobile Sidekick user data reads like an IT horror story, and that’s because it completely is (some are even saying sabotage). And it didn’t take long for some folks to immediately start using the story as proof that cloud-based computing is a bad idea.

However, that’s not the lesson here, and cloud-based services are not the real problem in this picture. Let me explain.

The Sidekick, for those who don’t know, is a clever piece of hardware made by a company called Danger, and sold exclusively through T-Mobile. Unlike most PDA phones, this one came with no sync cable — you put your addresses into it, and it sync’d up to T-Mobile’s servers over the air.

That’s where “cloud storage” comes in. In the IT world, that phrase means “storing your data out on some servers in some data center someplace that you don’t own.” Use Gmail? Your mail’s in the cloud. Rely on hosted Exchange? Same goes for you, except now your calendar and contact data are in the cloud, too. Google Docs? Cloud. Various web-based collaboration tools? Cloud. You get the idea. It’s got power, but it’s also not always a perfect fit. Right tool, right job.

In the phone context, this has strengths, especially for casual users — no software to install on your PC, no cable to lose, and you can get to the data from any browser (like, say, at work and at home) even without your device handy. Changes made on either side get sync’d to the other, and everything’s groovy.

There are some costs, too, obviously. The biggest one is potentially security, as Paris Hilton learned back when the Sidekick was the “It Phone” and some private snapshots from her Sidekick account ended up on every gossip blog in the universe. It wasn’t the work of some nefarious hacker cracking T-mobile’s site; it was almost certainly just some dude who managed to guess Hilton’s password in the privacy of his own home with no access at all to Hilton’s phone. Game, set, match. The lesson here, though, isn’t “cloud storage bad;” it’s “use a real password.” Who wants to bet it was her dog’s name?

The real gotcha of the Sidekick architecture, though, is the one that’s happening now. Not only did the Sidekick not require a cable to sync to your desktop (Outlook or whatever), it couldn’t. There is no easy way (of which I’m aware) for a Sidekick user to get their own backup of their Sidekick data. It was and remains a “trust us; we know what we’re doing” situation — which, as I’ve said before, is never a good idea.

Now that the Sidekick servers are toast, and everyone knows that Microsoft did essentially no backups, that lesson should be clear.

But let’s be specific: The lesson isn’t that using any cloud service is bad. The lesson actually doesn’t have anything at all to do with cloud services. The takeaway for the savvy after the Sidekick affair is bone fucking simple:

Make backups. Lots of them.

If the system someone is selling you doesn’t allow YOU to make your own backups, buy something else. I use cloud services, if you want to call them that, for two different sets of data on my iPhone. Using MobileMe, my desktop calendar and contacts sync with my phone via Apple, with changes automatically pushed from one side to the other whenever required with no cable involved. It works like a charm, and my data is in three places — my phone, my desktop, and MobileMe. And my desktop is very backed up. I do the same thing with my corporate Exchange data, which exists in even more places (since I use multiple computers with multiple installations of Outlook in addition to my normal computer).

I also use other kinds of cloud services. My mail is hosted at Gmail, and Imap’d down to my clients. That’s pretty darn cloudy, and I wouldn’t go back to running my own servers if you paid me. But, again, I also have backups.

So, again: the problem, dear reader, lies not with the cloud, but with our selves — and our ability to measure our backup security in time zones and spindles.

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