February 18, 2014

The Need for a Practical Approach to Assessing Cloud Services for Preservation

With each new release or update of my iPhone operating system, I am required to revisit and complete the redundant process of “setting up” my phone. The “iPhone Essentials” process includes establishing a Wi-Fi connection, signing into your Apple account, turning on various features, and setting up your iCloud account. iCloud was launched in 2011 and is now a regular feature of most Apple products. It allows users to store contacts, calendars, music, and other data in the cloud and to sync such information between Apple devices. With iCloud, Apple has expedited the establishment of a cloud storage service and infrastructure into a few easy steps: sign in with your account information, choose what you want to store, and sync your data. Many users, myself included, likely take for granted the service offered by Apple; the simple setup and automatic integration of the service allows users not to ignore what, how much, and where their data is used and stored by iCloud.

The concept of cloud computing has been around for years, but the forms we are all familiar with gained traction within the last decade as large service providers, such as Amazon, began offering more sophisticated products in this area. Recent years have seen a wealth of cloud services appear on the market and permeate our personal and professional lives, from consumer-level data backup to comprehensive solutions for any IT environment (e.g., content delivery, application servers, and networking, among others). Apple’s release of iCloud in 2011 was just another tech company’s hat in the ring. A marker of the ubiquity of cloud computing and storage, the service now boasts 320 million accounts.

The adopted term “cloud” is something of a misnomer, leading to a misunderstanding of the concept and its potential employment. The common phrase, “put it in the cloud,” implies an unknowable, ever-expanding home for data somewhere in the ether. In actuality The Cloud is just hardware and software someone else is responsible for, which we are able to access and use remotely. Just like with our own home harddrives and other technology, there is still very much a reality of physical and space limitations (and potential failure). It does not take long before users run into Apple’s 5GB pay wall and come to the disappointing realization that the free, seemingly unlimited space of the cloud is less expansive than they thought and that such convenience comes at a cost.

The misinterpretation of cloud services and their operations — and a number of operational hiccups in many service providers’ development of their products — has kept preservation organizations from readily adopting cloud computing (namely for storage, in this case) in support of long term preservation. This resistance has subsided as these services have grown and matured and organizations are beginning to approach them with open (but ever so slightly skeptical) minds.

This trend is illustrated in Jefferson Bailey’s interpretation of the NDSA’s Storage Survey. Among respondents to the survey, there was an almost 50/50 split between organizations using or considering cloud storage services and those against it. This is paralleled by the expression of many responding NDSA members’ (74%) preference for controlling their own preservation storage, citing “cost, trustworthiness, legal mandate, and security and risk management” as reasons for this attitude. These are valid reasons to be wary of cloud storage services, but Bailey’s analysis points to a perception of “lack of control” when working with cloud storage services and cites the absence of some core preservation features as the heart of the problem.

Bailey’s assessment of organizational hesitancy towards cloud services alludes to a larger misunderstanding about the nature of third-party services and how they fit within a digital preservation infrastructure. So often, “cloud services” is conflated with “cloud storage,” but there are many potential services to be leveraged for preservation and access, including database services, application hosting, and even simple office suites, such as Google Docs, for collaborative work. The key is selecting the correct cloud service by determining how it fits in your digital preservation infrastructure, through comprehensive vetting of the service, as well as the risk factors included in that service, to confirm it fulfills your identified needs and requirements.

For resource-strapped organizations, cloud services offer ideal solutions to very real problems that cannot be ignored, solutions complete with the appeal of scalable storage, lower overhead costs, and outsourced IT requirements. Taking a conservative approach by ignoring these possibilities due to a perceived lack of trust or control is ignoring a new and beneficial opportunity. Not doing so, and selecting a service without completing necessary research, is an equal risk.

Choosing whether to use a cloud service and selecting the appropriate provider both require a comprehensive understanding of a range of complex criteria. Equipping yourself with the necessary knowledge is often the first barrier to finding the ideal solution for your organization. As with almost all digital preservation issues, there is no simple, all-in-one solution to solve the diverse needs of individual organizations or quell any institutional hesitation with relying on cloud services. Rather, we need a practical approach to review third party solutions, make sense of and compare services among vendors (both the beneficial aspects and the punitive aspects of user agreements), and assess those services as they are relevant to archiving and a preservation-oriented approach to file and data storage.

To that end I am currently working on documentation outlining an approach to assessing cloud service providers, and an initial series of reviews of several cloud storage products currently available on the market. The start up cost and technological infrastructure required for digital preservation will necessitate the review of several approaches such as consortiums and commercial cloud solutions, which will necessitate serious review and informed decision making. I’m looking to begin releasing resources this month, and I hope that this series will provide clarity and guidance for archives and other preservation-oriented organizations interested in third-party solutions for storage and management of their growing digital collections.


We’ve begun releasing resources in this area under our new initiative Feet on The Ground: A Practical Approach to The Cloud, which will include guidance documents, reviews of vendors, and other content addressing the market as it changes. Check out the first release, “Nine Things To Consider When Assessing Cloud Storage” on our Papers & Presentations page, and look for more updates in the future.

Seth Anderson

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