Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Proximity Problem: A Cloud Fable Part II

The Internet has provided opportunities to advance efficiencies like no other time in human history. With proximity becoming less important every nanosecond, collaboration between parties half way around the world is now possible on an on-demand and real-time basis. I’d like to think altruistically and see the world as a utopian Garden of Eden where everyone is working together for the betterment of mankind, but alas, that is not reality - especially in the trade of underground contraband.

Manuel is part of a South American drug cartel. He and his peers view their operation like any other multi-national conglomerate. The objective is to increase revenue and profits. Just-In-Time Manufacturing is as real here as in any other enterprise. The concept of Kanban, the infamous innovation from the Toyota Production Process (TPS) that has been replicated in so many industries is a fully blown implementation in Manuel’s operation.

The United States, Manuel’s monolithic neighbor to the north, is not only his biggest and most profitable region but also his most tenacious and sophisticated foe. Travel to the US for business meetings has never been risk free. Since 9/11, however, the risks associated with in-person business meetings whether in the US or at home, have increased dramatically.

Like any high performing enterprise, Manuel’s is innovative and constantly striving to stay ahead of their competition. With the risk of international travel increasing for both Manuel and his customers, the cloud has been a boon to removing proximity as an attribute of doing business.

One innovation is the use of video conferencing as a way of entering into business agreements between Manuel and his customers. Not only does video conferencing mitigate the risk of in-person meetings but also provides the byproduct of recording the meetings thus acting as a binding contract between the parties.

When choosing his provider, Manuel knew that he could not choose one from the US. The Patriot Act took that option off the table immediately. So he opted for an off-shore provider. One domiciled in a sympathetic nation. In addition to the typical criteria such as functionality, bandwidth, and up-time, Manuel also considered things like extradition and privacy laws of the host nation.

Manuel’s organization embraced the cloud in many ways beyond video conferencing. Coupled with video conferencing, his cloud-based providers for storage, ERP, CRM, email, and banking, Manuel could conduct business anywhere and with anyone. Moving his operation was limited to moving people – not infrastructure and data.

What Manuel did not, and likely could not, consider was the complete infrastructure of his providers.

Cloud-providers potential Achilles heel is redundancy and failover. Customers of cloud providers expect near 100% up-time. The best providers fall into the Five-9s category (99.999%). To provide that kind of uptime there needs to be a sophisticated infrastructure with the same goal as Manuel – minimize proximity as a central point of failure. What Manuel did not know was that several of his providers contracted with US firms for redundancy, load balancing, and disaster recovery.

The one flaw in Manuel’s planning has now come home to roost.

The US DEA has indicted Manuel and a Chicago-based group, which was made up of US citizens, green-card holders, and illegal aliens, for illegal drug trafficking. After years of undercover operations, wire tapping, and packet sniffing, the DEA uncovered a recording of a video conference contract from a data center in Tucson, AZ. The Tucson data center was a tertiary load-balancing location for Manuel’s Chinese conferencing provider. Apparently Manuel struck a big deal over the Chinese New Year when many Chinese expatriates from around the world used his provider to video conference with their families back home. The provider experienced a high volume of calls when Manuel entered into these negotiations which kicked in the tertiary site in Tucson based on call volume and proximity of the callers in the system at the time – the Tucson data center was the most central of those data centers between Chicago and Manuel’s Venezuelan villa.

The DEA has its work cut out for it. Manuel is busted but his nation is unfriendly to US interests. The domicile of the video conferencing provider is likely to be equally uncooperative. If the US is lucky enough through interrogations or packet sniffing to intercept data related to Manuel’s other cloud-based providers, it’s likely to encounter the same minimal level of cooperation from those providers and their home nations.

However, Manuel has an equally uncomfortable situation. His epiphany is that he has no idea where all his data are stored and by the very nature of the Internet there is likely no way to remove it from the locations that can work to his disadvantage. His proximity and flexibility advantages are to an unknown extent countered by his lack of control over those environments.

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