Cloud Computing – Truth or Dare?

Dilbert Lost Cloud

Dilbert - Lost Cloud

This week, I received three calls asking me about some new tech. Eventually, all three questions boiled down to one thing: Cloud computing. Food for Thought. I started a blog to address it, when I found I addressed this two years ago in Cloud vs. Security. And the Internet of Things.

Then I got some input about conferences where speakers promoted the need for exchanging data. An issue I addressed as “Open Data” in the same article two years ago.

Same topics obviously resurfacing, but nothing new? So here’s an “update”.

Recent Airline IT Failures

Just to mention recent developments, the first needing mentioning: The latest large IT outages causing thousands of flights to be cancelled were attributed to failures of minor cloud systems, cascading into disaster causing the aviation IT systems to fail, leaving thousands of passengers stranded – not good for reputation.

The CIO of two airlines admitted that their main headaches result from such “SaaS” (Software as a Service), being not controlled by their company. But by some external IT experts who often do not understand the real-world impact of their “ideas”. And lousy interfaces of such “solutions”. Cheap to buy, expensive to manage.

Voice Assistants

Virtuoz Virtual AssistantAnother development is the “voice assistants” at home. To give the example of Alexa. As you know, my beloved daughter is called Alexsandra, so if I would use such device it would listen in, as soon as someone addresses her. Also the Echo Dot alternatives of “Amazon”, “Echo” and “Computer” are not much safer. And meanwhile, press reported how extensive Google, Amazon and others use “their” devices not to just provide a service, but filing your commands and conversations for analysis. An intrusion to my privacy causing me to caution and not buying into them.
Aside, my Android phone has been set up to not react to voice activation, but I found it to react and switch on voice recognition without my doing. I did like Siri and now Android’s voice recognition to send messages from the car to home. But not on voice activation. I do want some privacy left.

Don’t get me wrong. I love Voice Assistants. My friend Alex developed the first Internet Assistants at his company VirtuOz, later sold to Nuance. His next project WIT.ai was about voice recognition and later acquired by Facebook, the basis for their solutions. What I am concerned about is simply the privacy invasion, if those tools file away my communication for unspecified further use. I may talk about confidential issues.

To make it worse, there have been, are and will be attempts – and successes – by governments to access i.e. Alexa and her companions. Privacy? I’m not a criminal, but no, I do quite some thinks to secure my private life. 1984 anyone?

Alternative Cloud

Aside having my “own” Internetserver, I use Nextcloud for two years now (thanks Jens!). To use it properly, like Dropbox, Google, Apple or Microsoft, you need a client program that integrates into your file manager (i.e. the Microsoft Explorer). I neither trust Dropbox not the others (except on encrypted storage), we’ve all learned from Edward Snowden.

In the end, it is a trust thing. I trust my friend who maintains “my server”. Totally. My family trusts me that I have other things to do than sneaking into their mailboxes or files they have in their own Nextcloud on my server.

Cloud Security

HackerMeanwhile and especially with the current president who seems to lack the moral values required for someone elected into such power, the “United States” in my opinion turn from friend to foe for Europe. Or at least someone who doesn’t care about our (common) well-being. Doing the wrong things for the wrong reason. Get me right. As everywhere there are good and bad people. Listen to Billy Joel’s Leningrad if you’re thinking different. And the Merkel-government is not any good either. From shining example for development and engineering, “Made in Germany”, we deteriorated into a “back midfield” in comparison to other states and sell out pioneering developments to China and America. And our corrupt government (it’s called “Lobbying”) strangles personal freedom with laws under the umbrella of “fighting terror”. But as I said about the U.S. – it is good to have a global sheriff, but I’m afraid what happens if the government changes and becomes “bad”. Do I entrust atomic warfare to someone like Trump? In honesty, I have more faith in Putin in that aspect than the lunatic in the White House.

So with governments applying the thumb screws on the IT industry, how save is your data in the cloud?

Privacy

Big Brother watches us and all governments (including the German) undermine privacy and invest heavily into technologies and change the laws to enable further invasion of privacy and inside your own four walls. You trade in convenience with privacy.

The DHS in it’s early days seized the computer of the top-level representative of a large European aircraft maker. In direct competition to date with that U.S. aircraft maker. When the manager denied giving the password, he ran into major trouble, missing his connecting flight. Not given a written confirmation that the content of his laptop wouldn’t make it to the U.S. competitor… That was “friendly” America – not Russia, where I never experienced “security issues”. My computer is secured, my data is not on the computer, only what I need enroute and that’s encrypted on the drive.

Summary

My personal summary is what my friends at ASRA called me paranoid upon my presentation 2007 (a dozen years ago). I am not, but careful. I am a public persona on the Internet. But thinking about governments hacking, falsifying and abusing data, who do I trust my data to? Think about the discussions about Huawei and 5G, do we trust them? If we would use encrypted data communication by default, Tor Browser, SSL, encrypted mails, Huawei would be a no-issue. But I still know too many companies first hand, not using contemporary anti-virus software on their mail servers and mail accounts. Trust Microsoft Onecloud? Apple, Dropbox? No, not really. Trust my own cloud? No, any system can be hacked. Can I protect myself 100%? No. But I can make it more difficult.

SaaS AssimilatedCommercially, I believe it a step back to use SaaS, which is another word for “cloud computing”. If you use SaaS, better be prepared and test what happens if the “outsider” provides corrupted data, what happens in case of a link failure – and recovery. Using different computer systems, often lousy connected increases the dependency on “others”. I can’t tell you, how often I was fighting with SaaS-companies to get access to my own data. Or how they imply that “their” data is always superior to anyone else. A-CDM anyone? CRM tools anyone? I am sure you can sing that tune along…

SaaS, Cloud is like a consultant. You use them in two situations. To cover something to complex and specialized needed for a short time that it does not make sense to develop your own know-how on it. Or to train your own to become better on such. Other issues can be to get an outside view – or to outsource blame or the risk of such. In all other cases, I strongly recommend to hire an employee. Hire software companies to provide a solution that fits your own “cloud”. Your IT environment. Use cloud to back up data into encrypted data vaults. But make sure, you have complete access to your information and raw data.

And don’t believe the SaaS-sales people when they tell you that you have all the access to your data. It’s their interest to fix you to their “environment”. And never let you off their hook. And “real time data integration” with other systems is in reality very low on their priority list. Again that question by SITA about the “source of the most common truth”. If data is in conflict most those SaaS, they assume that “naturally” they are right. And ATC, airline, ground handler, airport, government or whoever comes up with conflicting data is wrong…

Food for Thought
Comments welcome!

Side note: I use a licensed Dilbert comic – for private and single use in a blog they charge $35 plus $10 “processing fee”, totaling to $45. I find that rather expensive and counterproductive, sorry that I don’t promote them…

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Cloud vs. Security. And the Internet of Things

Juergen is one of the very few people, I really mean, VERY FEW, people that understand both airlines and airports.

The Travel Industry and the Cloud

GDShosteddistributionBack in 2000, in my presentation at ITB Travel Technology Congress, I addressed the changes e-Commerce brought to our distribution. Aviation and travel have a very strong history in what we today experience as “new”, call “cloud computing”.

Aviation has been a pacemaker in pre-Internet e-Commerce. Since the invention of the first “computerized reservation systems” (CRS), based on American’s ground-breaking development of the “Semi-Automated Business Research Environement” (Sabre). Read the Sabre-History for more. Thanks to the global SITA communications network (yes, those guys I temporarily worked for last year after they acquired my employer), aviation appreciated near instantaneous communication ever since I started working in aviation back in the late 80s. What we call e-Mail today, we called “Queue Messages” back then. To date, bookings, called “Passenger Name Records” (PNR) are created and maintained “in the cloud”. Whereas the “cloud based server” is either one of the Global Distribution Systems (GDS) and/or the airline’s own CRS.

Airline IT-managers celebrating this as the next big thing simply sell you old wine in new barrels. In the mid 90s, just about 20 years ago, the last “dummy terminals” were taken out of service, replaced by PCs with more sophisticated interfaces. Which were meanwhile very much replaced by web-clients working in standard browsers. The only difference being that those browsers often still use closed networks (such as SITA) for data transport instead of the Internet. Aside the obviously more reliable and stable data speed, this directly leads to the next question:

Cloud Security

amadeus 4 tiersWhere the GDS and CRS frequently work in a closed environment reducing the danger of hacking and other insecurities, recent developments make those services available through Internet links. Being a commodity, this is much cheaper. But it also opens the communication to a number of security issues. It needs complex security layers to avoid hacking or other unintended communication disrupting those large host systems. And this is also important to understand. “working in the cloud” is “clouding” (disguising) reality with fuzzy, hip wording. All it is is communicating through the cloud (word used to disguise “the Internet”) with servers that are not local but “elsewhere”.

Amadeus Datacenter Munich
Amadeus Datacenter Munich

The cloud servers of Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Amadeus, Worldspan or Sabre. Where the “Sabre” computers have been sold to HP and Sabre uses “commercial services”, Amadeus still has it’s own and also publishes quite some diagrams and images I frequently refer to.

But a fact in all such cases: If you believe it’s your data, this is a self-deception. You got to trust the company where you store your data to be trustworthy. Whereas recently there are quite some concerns about governmental insight into data. As I mentioned back in 2008, it’s questionable if a national government demands access to data without guarantee that this confidential commercial information does not reach the company’s competitor in that country. The example was not Russian, but American. Who watches the watcher?

owncloudAs I mentioned in my ITB presentation 2004, there’s possibilities to use alternate services from the Open Source developments. With cloud computing, you’re no longer required to use commercial services: I recently shifted all my personal data, especially calendar and contacts from Google into my OwnCloud. I trust my friend maintaining my own server. It’s in a huge computer center but my friend secures it against “unfriendly” or unauthorized access. And I hope what I have is not interesting to the server center operator to have someone physically accessing my server to steal data. A theoretical possibility. It’s a (semi-constant) assessment, on who to trust.

I also mentioned in my 2013 blog about Big Data, “The first, Big-Data-experts came up with, have been personal profiles, coming from a variety of different sources. That Google and Facebook still offer me young Russian ladies for marriage is a good sign that they are way off even that goal.” It’s a simple question on big data. From the same post: “And as the amount of data grows faster than the processing power, the real problem is predictable.”

Open Data

As much as you want to keep your personal and commercial data in some areas private, there was a mantra in the 90s “My data is my capital”. It was the time the Internet started to make data available to everyone and who “owned” the data could sell it expensively. To date the value of the GDS, the OAGs, Albatross, CH Aviation and other such data collecting companies. Whereas it is relatively easy to process aviation data as most of it is very clearly standardized. But as much as the data processing adds some value, it’s life cycle is ending. More and more “common data” becomes available openly. Where that i.e. started with OpenStreetMap, meanwhile the basic cadaster (land registry) data like street data, administrative boundaries, etc. are made openly available. Others still try to charge horrendous amounts, but they become a minority and will become extinct soon. The value is no longer in “owning” the data, but in meaningful analysis and use of it.

NextVue2Having been pacemakers in e-Commerce, aviation today is light years behind other industries. U.S. tools showing aircraft in-flight on maps like Harris Corp. (Exelis) NextVue does not have access to Canadian data as NAV Canada wants to sell it. Expensively. Not exchange (to also have access to U.S. data). It’s mine. Such, planes not traveling to/from the U.S. airspace simply don’t show. And the NAV Canada data is very often “a problem” for webservices providing such information in other markets. Dear NAV Canada, this is your wake-up call. The same for many other government owned “businesses”. Open Data is here. If you don’t come along, you will find yourself bypassed before long.

The same experience I had in my past years working on Airport Collaborative Decision Making (A-CDM). As long as our industry does not learn that it is in the benefit to the entire business and industry to share work data at reasonable cost. Base data is freely available today. But it’s fascinating how much of the base data we get from the “official sources” (like IATA, ICAO and the likes) is of lousy quality requiring manual review and updates.

That’s aviation. Believe me, working with data from 33 countries in Europe so far, basic data like population on municipality level, associating that to commercial or openly available map data from the same country’s cadastre … It’s a challenge. Many countries where the name of a city is not unique, but a municipality may have three four different names in the country. Not to mention that there are duplicate municipality names even within the same state. Open data is needed, but I think it might be something if a country could decide on unique naming for a given municipality and if EuroStat and the national statistics offices could agree on a unique identifier. And make sure their data matches. Else, a lot of people in the world will have a full time job to repeat the stunt we did. And other such data correcting others did. Again. And again. And again again.

The Internet of Things

Big Data is like teenage sex. Everyone talks about it, nobody really knows how to do it, everyone thinks everyone else is doing it, so everyone claims they are doing it...The last weeks the messages on LinkedIn, hyping the “Internet of Things” (IoT) are “exploding”. At this point, it’s very much like “Big Data”. Because just like big data, the concerns mentioned above apply. As long as everyone does something different and there is no common understanding about how to connect the IoT, it’s a lot of smoke and distracting noise, but not too much on real results. No matter if it’s global players announcing their understanding of IoT. As long as they don’t agree and establish open standards, IoT is a buzz word with not much substance.

As an example from another industry, more common to us all: For many years I have a look at “house IoT”. It would be so nice to be able to have the thermostats and blinds being programmable. Unfortunately, all makers of “intelligent” thermostats have their own “standard”, making it impossible to mix them. So if you want to buy, you got to select the system. And you’re stuck with it… That’s like the times of VHS vs. Betamax or DVD±R, where you usually selected the wrong technology…

Babelfish
Babelfish

Just as “video tape” or “DVD” came, evolved a standard and then became household normality, the IoT will need to develop common standards to allow common tools to exchange information with them in a default way. And not have 150 different “interpreters” trying to talk to all those devices in their language…

Food for Thought
Comments welcome!

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