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Thursday, 12 November 2009

A DIY Cloud

What is a cloud?

Possibly the future of the internet? I think this project could be interesting to many people, including less-jargony types, so let's start here with a somewhat hand-wavey explanation.

Amazon.com has a lot of computer power. Tons. More than they really know what to do with. And in the old days, on mainframes, people used to rent time on computers and just pay for the bits of computer time that they used. So Amazon thought they could make some extra money renting out time on their computers. And because of economies of scale, it's now way cheaper to rent space and time from Amazon than it is to have your own server. You pay them very little and you can have your webpages and your stuff hosted by them. Plus, they have TONS of computer power, so if one day your webpage on toe fungus becomes the most popular trend on the internet, it won't crash. Amazon can deal with that. You'll pay, but it will stay up. Indeed, the cloud is extremely reliable because it has a very high degree of redundancy. If you have your own server and it crashes, it's down. But the cloud is a whole mess of servers and a lot of them have to crash before it will go down.

Downsides of corporate clouds

But, the problem is, this is highly centralised. Amazon is the biggest cloud provider, but google also provides a bunch of cloud-ish services like this (gmail, wave, blogspot, google docs, google calendars). In the case of Amazon, you're paying them money, so you have a contract with them. But google is giving you stuff for free and sometimes just suspends accounts. If your account gets cracked/phished and somebody starts sending spam from it, you can loose access to all your data. Which means your emails, your documents, your contacts, your spreadsheets. It's alarming to contemplate.

Also, especially in the states, somebody can (often baselessly) complain your web contact is infringing on copyright and these big companies will take it right down. You're a small customer and they won't demand proof of infringement, they'll just nuke it. So your data and web pages and that are held at the whim of a gigantic company.

Solutions

The ideal solution to this problem, then is to decentralise, so that your data is not just with a gigantic corporation. However, you still want the reliability of a highly redundant system. So the answer is to have your own cloud.

In the latest Ubuntu distro, there is a package for doing just that, or for using the Amazon cloud. This package is called Eucalyptus. So what you would do is install this on a server that has fairly reliable connectivity, like, in your living room if you leave your router on all the time. And then you get a bunch of trusted mates to do the same thing. All of you are running this on the corner of a always-on computer in your living room, which could also be doing other things, like have all your mp3s and videos on it or used by your kid to do her homework or whatever. It just takes up a corner of your machine, and a corner of similar computers run by your mates. This cloud would be hosting a bunch of stuff, but redundantly, so when your network crashes or you forget to pay your internet bill, as long as this doesn't happen to all your friends at the same time, things stay online.

This is potentially especially useful for NGOs. Things like organisations advocating for the rights of sex workers do not want to be dependant on corporations, especially not american ones because they're subject to pressures from organised puritans. If your NGO is running a part of a cloud with other NGOs who have related goals and you're all geographically diverse, then you can know your webpages will still be up even if amazon wouldn't like you or your network goes down our your whole country is feeling repressive.

Slackernet

However, NGOs are understandably resistant to moving straight on to new-looking technology. Therefore, I think it would be a fun and good idea to set up a slacker net, so that a bunch of folks with a bit of extra computer power lying around can share bits of it with trusted people and have our own decentralised cloud. It's exciting because it's high tech but doable from home and puts things into the hands of people instead of giant corporations. Eucalyptus was designed to require very little upkeep, so it should not be too much hassle. Alas, it does not seem to run on OS X, so I'm going to put it on a recycled PC, maybe next week or so, which hopefully will not eat too much electricity. Apparently, there are some nice, cheap, very low power new servers which are well suited to this, but even though I agree that £250 is very reasonable, alas, I have no budget for it.

If we can show that this works well enough and that it's easy, then it gets easier to pitch this to NGOs. Plus, if it works well enough, it could save us hosting fees on our vanity domains.

If this sounds like an interesting project, leave a comment. One node does not a cloud make, so this needs a few folks on board to try it out.

2 comments:

Jean Sirius said...

yes, this looks very interesting. i *think* there's an old pc around here somewhere...

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