Cloud Computing: Take Me to Your Data

Netbooks were a great idea when they first started to appear, weren’t they? Just a tiny little laptop with enough power for a number of day to day activities, super-portable, great for note-taking and other classroom activities, really the perfect solution for any student–or professor for that matter.

So it wasn’t surprising at all to see the release of some basic apps that were run completely from a web page. Word processor, spreadsheet app, etc. Netbooks can connect to and use these apps straight from a browser. And with Google’s proposed Linux distro, Chrome OS, being made specifically for netbooks that would have links to these various apps by default, it seems likely that other netbook distros and Windows releases etc. will have their own cloud apps to choose from as well.

Of course this “cloud computing” idea isn’t anything new. Web-based email clients have been around for over 10 years. Web-based IRC chat clients have been around for even longer. Soon after that primitive WYSIWYG HTML editors started to surface as well. So what is the problem with the expansion of this idea into other realms that could even be used professionally (and who cares if the big corporations providing these services give it a slick name like “cloud computing”)?

This article is going to focus on Google, as they seem to be at the forefront of this whole coming change. Google of course has come under fire for their data-collecting practices revolving around the Google search engine. It’s actually this practice that gets my paranoia-nerves on edge. Collecting IP addresses correlated with specific searches categorized in a searchable database is to me unethical to say the least. One can only imagine the purpose to something like this. I personally no longer use Google for my searches, and am very careful with the content I upload or view using other Google services.

Here I’d like to move away from Google briefly and talk about Facebook. Facebook is also a cloud service with a whopping 500 million users. It needs no introduction; everyone is aware of it. What you may not realize is that anything a user posts on Facebook is no longer theirs. Facebook now owns it. Here are a couple of quotes from Facebook’s terms of service agreement:

“You hereby grant Facebook an irrevocable, perpetual, non-exclusive, transferable, fully paid, worldwide license (with the right to sublicense) to (a) use, copy, publish, stream, store, retain, publicly perform or display, transmit, scan, reformat, modify, edit, frame, translate, excerpt, adapt, create derivative works and distribute (through multiple tiers), any User Content you (i) Post on or in connection with the Facebook Service or the promotion thereof subject only to your privacy settings or (ii) enable a user to Post, including by offering a Share Link on your website and (b) to use your name, likeness and image for any purpose, including commercial or advertising, each of (a) and (b) on or in connection with the Facebook Service or the promotion thereof.”

“We may collect information about you from other Facebook users, such as when a friend tags you in a photo, video, or place, provides friend details, or indicates a relationship with you.”

“We may retain the details of transactions or payments you make on Facebook.”

And going back to Google, here is a quote from YouTube’s terms of service that must be agreed to before uploading:

“…by submitting the User Submissions to YouTube, you hereby grant YouTube a worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free, sublicenseable and transferable license to use, reproduce, distribute, prepare derivative works of, display, and perform the User Submissions in connection with the YouTube Website and YouTube’s (and its successor’s) business… in any media formats and through any media channels.”

My main concern here is ownership of content. Never mind the privacy infractions. The following quote is from the “Terms” link followed from Google Docs, although I believe it is the same document for all of Google’s services:

“By submitting, posting or displaying the content you give Google a perpetual, irrevocable, worldwide, royalty-free, and non-exclusive license to reproduce, adapt, modify, translate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute any Content which you submit, post or display on or through, the Services. This license is for the sole purpose of enabling Google to display, distribute and promote the Services and may be revoked for certain Services as defined in the Additional Terms of those Services.

11.2 You agree that this license includes a right for Google to make such Content available to other companies, organizations or individuals with whom Google has relationships for the provision of syndicated services, and to use such Content in connection with the provision of those services.

11.3 You understand that Google, in performing the required technical steps to provide the Services to our users, may (a) transmit or distribute your Content over various public networks and in various media; and (b) make such changes to your Content as are necessary to conform and adapt that Content to the technical requirements of connecting networks, devices, services or media. You agree that this license shall permit Google to take these actions.

11.4 You confirm and warrant to Google that you have all the rights, power and authority necessary to grant the above license.”

As you can see, by uploading any content to Google’s services, you give up any right to ownership and privacy as far as the content of the files are concerned. Beyond this we are faced with the “push” towards cloud computing like it is the future, and who is leading the charge to this bright utopia? Google of course! And people eat it up, even though it is completely unnecessary. Even tablet PCs now have the power to run the basic apps that are being offered from these online services. And if a file is created locally, no one has the rights to it but you. It’s really no wonder that there is this push. In a time when no one reads these terms and conditions but blindly clicks “OK” and happily (and usually unknowingly) gives up all private and commercial rights to whatever content is being used, shared and/or being created, this is a fantastic way to get rights to virtually all digital content “in the cloud”.

So there is no way that I would trust any of these services with any kind of sensitive data. There is no reason to state right in the terms of service that they have the right to share my data with anyone if the intention to do so isn’t there. But here’s my dirty little secret: I actually like the idea of cloud computing. I like the idea of owning a tablet PC with a 3G connection accessing my files from anywhere to work with or share at any time I please. There’s a freedom in that idea that I can only liken to Star Trek. It’s just really cool. So can we still use this technology and get around the Google problem?

Yes. And that solution does not involve choosing a different provider for these services. No matter what is in the service agreement the truth is I don’t like the idea of just leaving all my digital content on a server at an unknown location, and someone else controlling my access. What I envision is cloud computing, where the cloud is my home PC that I can access from anywhere using my tablet. This can already be done easily by anyone with an FTP server/client setup. (Okay, this is not cloud computing per se, but is really the next best thing and has already been around forever). I think this will become more sophisticated though with a complete server application that can be left running on any PC at home. The tablet can then access the service remotely and the application launches the word processor app, for example, embeds it to a web page and sends it back to the tablet.

This is being done to some extent already with some applications. uTorrent, for example, has a web gui that can be enabled and works quite well. Many routers have a remote access option. I actually see this as becoming a standard in the major Linux distros. The option will be prepackaged and installed with the live CD. Will it catch on with the commercial OSes? No, probably not. The Googles and the Microsofts and the Apples will of course eventually start to charge for these services, probably as a monthly subscription. So they will not provide a service that makes payment unnecessary.

In the end I suppose it will make little difference to the average user, but there are businesses out there that use these services right now. It just seems like quite a leap of faith to trust a company like Google with anything business related. I think that people need to see that the idea of “cloud computing” is not a new idea at all and indeed has really been around since the popular inception of the Internet itself. Slapping a flashy new label on it shouldn’t make anyone think otherwise, and it shouldn’t mislead anyone into giving up the right to their own content. It is possible to have the convenience without using a third party service.

Indeed you can have your cake and eat it too.

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Impulse vs. Steam — My Thoughts on Digital Distribution Clients for Games

With Steam having effectively cornered the market as the online distribution system for gaming, perhaps this is a moot discussion, but I think it is still a topic worthy of debate.

I suppose the most obvious question to most people is "what is Impulse?" Impulse (from Stardock) is another gaming distribution system that is very comparable to Steam (from Valve). The two systems have many of the same games for sale, and many that are exclusive to their own respective platform. I will say that Steam does have the larger selection of the two. Aside from the actual games offered, there are a few important differences between them.

The biggest difference is that Steam requires that the client is running in the background in order to play a game, while Impulse does not. This may not seem like a huge deal at first, but the implications of this really are a huge deal. First, any game bought via Steam becomes inextricably tied to the client. They cannot be separated.

Another big difference is the file structure. Steam places all its games within its own program directory and many of the files are buried within its own proprietary container. This makes accessing individual game files an enormous headache and makes any kind of modding a near impossibility. This leaves one with the impression that games bought through Steam belong more to Valve than to the user. With Impulse all games are installed in the "Program Files" directory, just as if you installed the game directly from a store-bought CD or DVD, and the files themselves remain unaltered. The games you buy are your own to do with as you please.

To Valve’s credit, Steam has been released for the Mac, making it the only game distributor to do so (that I am aware). Stardock has always said that it is and will always be Windows only. There were several rumors recently that said that Valve was planning a Linux client but those were squashed.

So what does all this mean for an end-user? Well in the end when all one wishes to do is play games, not much I suppose. Having to have the Steam client run in the background might cause some difficulty for older machines. I can imagine some graphics options being needed to be turned down or off in order to accommodate the extra running process. But in the end both systems do work very well, so it is a matter of preference.

I must note however that there are some other considerations to be made from a Linux user’s perspective. Neither have a Linux client, but Steam does run under Wine very well. I have never been able to get Impulse to run under Wine. However with all of the game files at your disposal, it is not necessary to run Impulse as long as you have a Windows partition or in a virtual machine where the games can be installed and migrated over.

All in all as a personal preference I love the Impulse system. If a game I wish to purchase is available from both, I will get it from Impulse every time. That being said, I have a few games that I bought via Steam as they were unavailable from Impulse, but it does seem to me that Impulse is getting bigger all the time.

I just wish one of them would develop a native Linux client and start to port over some games.

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Games, Pirates and DRM Schemes

I’m a PC gamer. I love RTS games and the keyboard/mouse input. I have an Xbox 360 with Xbox Live but I rarely to never use it and I will be canceling my subscription after it runs out at the end of the year.

For the most part I game on Windows. I pay for all of my games. Generally I purchase my games via Impulse from Stardock, but I do use Steam occasionally too. I like Impulse better for many reasons, but I’ll talk more about that in a later post. For now, as the title indicates, I would like to talk about DRM schemes that infest many games that are out there and that I play.

There are some DRM schemes that I really don’t mind. CD keys are one method. This doesn’t really apply to games purchased off of digital distribution platforms, but it deserves a mention. This method doesn’t install unwanted software and therefore will not disrupt my system. CD checks are annoying, but I can look past it. What I mean by a CD check is that the game will check the CDROM for the original game CD and refuse to start the game if the CD is not there. I have been guilty of using NOCD hacks to get past this.

Of course the meat of this post is going to revolve around the more intrusive DRM schemes like Securom. For the uninitiated, Securom is a program that runs completely separate from the game that can check for things like if you are online, how many times you’ve activated the game, and store whatever information about your computer it wants offsite.

Many users have complained about unwanted Securom side-effects including, but not limited to disabling applications like Nero Burning Rom and Daemon Tools, and disabling the write capabilities of some DVD drives. Later versions of Securom actually installs itself at the kernel level of Windows and in some cases has caused system instabilities or even rendered systems completely unbootable, necessitating a reformat.

At best, a program like Securom does what it’s supposed to do, and say, will only let you play a game while online, or will stop you from activating the game after 5 installs (the number of current installs would in this case be stored offsite in a database somewhere else. Which is kind of humorous if it was Securom that necessitated the reformat/reinstall in the first place).

The 5 (or what ever number) install limit I can forgive to an extent. EA Games is famous for using this one. But if you do need to go past this limit a call to customer service will reactivate it for you, and I think EA did actually release a small app that will also reactivate it for you.

A game that will only let you play while online, such as Ubisoft’s Assasin’s Creed 2 is particularly maddening to me, especially since this game is single player only! It’s insane to me that Ubisoft can’t imagine a scenario where someone might want to play this game offline! No one there has brought a laptop with them on a flight?

The real crazy thing about this is that it hasn’t stopped the piracy of the game. And of course the pirated copies of the game have Securom removed and it plays fine without an internet connection. It’s this sort of thing that puts us honest people in a bit of a predicament. If I shell out my hard-earned money for the game, I have to play a crippled version of it, and feel like a chump. I could download the game using a file-sharing network and play it where I want when I want (for free), but have to live with that nagging feeling inside telling me that I shouldn’t be playing.

So what is an honest person to do? I could buy the game and just use the cracked copy to play it. But that is just as maddening to me. If I’ve shelled out my money, I shouldn’t have to waste my bandwidth on getting it a second time. The other choice (the one I opted for in the case of Assasin’s Creed) is to just not buy the game, and forget about playing it.

I can’t help but wonder how long these DRM schemes can possibly continue to live as a successful business model. In my above example, it hasn’t stopped the theft of the game, and lost a paying customer–the exact opposite of the model’s intent.

On the upside, there are companies cropping up that will not use any DRM in their software and make really good games. Ironclad is one, who’s Sins of a Solar Empire won awards. Brad Wardell, CEO of Stardock (publisher of SoaSE) has spoken at length of the fallacy of DRM schemes, how they really only hurt the paying customer and do nothing to actually prevent piracy.

I actually bought SoaSE purely on those merits and ended up with one of the best RTS games I’ve ever had the pleasure of playing!

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GNU/Linux: The Open Source vs. Commercial App War

I’m just going to come right out and say it: Linux needs more commercial apps, and from my personal point of view, Linux needs commercial games. In the Open-Source community this is sometimes an unpopular point of view. And I get it. I really do.

The strong point of the GNU/Linux operating system is that it is open source, and the thousands of apps that are immediately available for it are also (mostly) open source.

The benefits of open-source software are many. If a project gets abandoned by the original creators, other users of the software can continue to work and improve on it. The project never has to die. This is just one example of many. So when a company thinks about selling closed-source software for Linux some users get upset:

"Well, that’s just fine and dandy. We don’t need anymore proprietary software infesting our Free Software operating systems. Until Steam is liberated I strongly oppose its port to GNU+Linux."
–one comment on the recent news that Steam was not planning on releasing a Linux client of it’s digital distribution system

To me this is short-sighted. For one, there will always be the choice to not install any particular piece of software. There is no reason to force others into your choice as well. This reminds me of the religious right trying to force TV shows to adhere to language and video standards to "protect the children," when obviously we are not all children or have/want children. The obvious answer to that complaint is to just not watch the show and not allow your kids to watch it either.

If I want to install a closed-source commercial app on my system that is my choice. You don’t have to if you do not wish to do so. And if it really bothers you that much, you can always switch to FreeBSD. I don’t think that there will be any commercial software for that OS any time soon.

The fact is that there is already a number of proprietary commercial apps for Linux. One example I would like to use here is the game Osmos from Hemisphere Games. On the day that the Linux version was released was also the day that Osmos had its highest sales figures.

The Osmos reports are telling. There are many in the Linux community that are willing to spend money on software. Enough even to produce a profit for those selling. So while there isn’t a huge selection of commercial software out there for our chosen OS, I believe more will come. And I think commercial growth in Linux applications will be exponential. And if more high-profile commercial game-vendors release a Linux client, the more people will actually give Linux a fair shake and try it, either from a live CD or in a virtual machine at least. Let’s face it, the Linux OS as a desktop environment is really for the home user. The price is right, even if the learning curve is slightly steeper than with other commercial operating systems. Although with the recent Ubuntu releases and new distros like Linux Mint, that is changing too.

All of these things are slowly but steadily garnering attention of more commercial vendors and as more becomes available, the more attention the average person is giving Linux. The two feed off of each other. Soon enough commercial software will become available for Linux that will make this entire debate moot anyway.

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My History With Linux

Well it’s been a month since my personal Linux experiment began, and it does continue. We’ll say that this is actually many iterations in, and I have had several "personal Linux experiments". This one is lasting longer than the rest.

Perhaps I should clarify, as I have had Linux running here in different capacities for a number of years. So to rephrase, this has been my first successful Linux desktop experiment. I have a Linux machine here running several servers — Samba for file-sharing, FTP for accessing files remotely (music mainly) and for a long while there was a shoutCAST server running on it as well. And in setting up these servers I became very comfortable with Linux the editing configuration files. But the big difference between Linux as a server environment and Linux as a desktop environment is this:

I can set up a server to run properly and then leave it alone. A desktop computer is meant to be used and interacted with on a daily basis. If I’m constantly using the command line to get things done, I become very dissatisfied with the experience. A desktop environment should be quick and intuitive. In fact the more transparent it is to the user, the better.

In a server setting, I would actually prefer to have a bunch of configuration files to be edited than to have to navigate my way around a bunch of windows and menus. I’ll enter users within a command line interface and not care because I only have to do it once. I’ll get fed up pretty quickly in a desktop environment if I have to enter apt-get in a terminal every time I want to install an application.

So my previous Linux desktop experiments failed because of this–not because it was too difficult, but because they were a pain in the ass.

As indicated above I started another iteration of my Linux desktop experiment, and this time I chose Linux Mint 9. Now in that time I have had to edit a couple of configuration files, but it was one of those one-time things which could then be left alone, so I didn’t mind. I haven’t really had to use the command line at all. Configuration options within the GUI are very intuitive. There are also Youtube tutorials now, which is something that I didn’t really have before.

I then installed the KDE desktop environment and I haven’t looked back, especially now with the release of KDE 4.5.1. KDE in its current form is the best desktop environment I’ve ever had the pleasure of using. I like Gnome too, which is very streamlined and perhaps still more intuitive than KDE. But KDE is like interacting with a work of art. It’s just gorgeous! It makes me want to use it.

With this being said, I’m still dual booting between Mint 9 and Windows 7. There are still apps (games actually) that I have to run Windows to use. I really hope that commercial game vendors will in the near future be more willing to release their products for the Linux platform.

There are many in the Linux/open source community that do not want this. This will be a topic for my next post.

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