Cloud Computing: Not Your Average Nimbus

By Allison Thomasseau
The Daily Free Press
November 2, 2011

Although many Boston University students seem unconcerned with the information their iPhones and BlackBerry smartphones send into cyberspace, people should be aware of the privacy risks of using social networking and emailing websites, computer science researchers said.

In order to come up with solutions to these risks, BU, Brown University and the University of California, Irvine received a $3 million grant from the National Science Foundation to study cloud computing.

A computer cloud is a theoretical device that citizens and companies use to store their data, according to Azer Bestavros, a BU computer science profesor and the lead principle investigator of the cloud project.

Instead of storing information on computers or other hardware devices, companies such as Google are outsourcing, or storing their data in cyberspace, he said.

Clouds can hold information from hundreds of computers in one place, he said.

“The cloud is something that’s out there. Even though you can’t touch it, it exists,” he said.

BU received the grant after submitting a proposal to the NSF for peer review, he said. The five-year grant covers costs for promoting the team’s research findings, not the research costs themselves, he said.

“[The grant] supports effort outside of teaching,” he said. “It’s not for equipment or faculty, but for graduate students to travel and present work with other colleges and the industry.”

Professors and graduate students from BU will work together with smaller teams at UC Irvine and Brown on the project, he said.

“It’s a team of investigators. We’re the lead institution, but there are team players from other schools,” he said.

Easy Access

There are various technological benefits to using clouds, Bestavros said.

If data is stored in a cloud instead of on a home computer, then professionals can oversee virus protection directly, the said. Outsourcing data from each computer to one location makes computer maintenance incredibly efficient, he said.

“Instead of paying one person to maintain 10 computers, we can pay one person to maintain a million computers,” he said.

In addition to increasing efficiency, clouds allow users to access their data from any device, not just their home computer, he said. For example, Facebook users can log onto their account from any smartphone or computer to see their profile and updates, he said.

“[The cloud] affects the people quite directly,” said Leonid Reyzin, a BU associate professor of computer science and principle investigator for the project.

However, certain types of information are not practical for cloud storage, Bestavros said.

“Gaming wouldn’t go to the cloud, because there is a delay to get data…from far away,” he said.

Although data can be transferred from hard drives two feet away from each other in a few nanoseconds, it might take a millisecond for the data to transfer from a cloud a few hundred miles away, he said.

Privacy Paranoia

Because clouds are still relatively new technology, there are some potential issues that make companies wary of placing all their data in the cloud, Bestavros said.

“We have a target of going to the cloud, but there are challenges,” he said.

The three principal issues with clouds are security, privacy and protection of a fair market price for the cloud, he said.

Because the United States government gives little privacy protection to cloud computing, companies are wary to put information into the cloud, he said. Due to the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986, if a company’s private records are leaked or lost because of a lack of security in the cloud, then the company itself will be criminally charged, according to an article by PC World.

“We need to give these guarantees to the customers and provide the ability to prove to ourselves that the cloud is reliable,” Bestavros said. “We’re in an arms race between the computer and hackers.”

BU assistant professor of computer science and principle investigator Jonathan Appavoo asked, “What does trust mean? How can we realize it? How can we give all control to the Internet?”

Trusting clouds can mean different things to different people, as many citizens today already do trust corporations such as Google, Flickr and Facebook with their personal information, he said.

However, others question whether trusting social networking sites is safe.

“Hackers can attack and spy on people in new ways,” said second-year doctoral student at BU and project collaborator Richard Skowyra. “Their personal data isn’t safe, and we need to find ways of fixing that.”

As part of its research, the team will create algorithms, protocols and other techniques to provide security, Bestavros said. In order to test these techniques, the team will build prototypes for a more secure cloud, he said.

However, one of the problems with beginning this kind of research is that the team doesn’t know how to measure security, he said.

“We need to define the metrics of what privacy, security and economic utility is currently, and then come up with something better,” he said.

Electronic Enlightenment

One of the biggest problems with cloud security is simply that the public is unaware of the risks that they are taking, Appavoo said.

“There’s a wide gamut of what people know about security and what they are putting on the Internet,” he said. “The pervasiveness and how it affects all our lives is not understood.”

For example, many people are unaware of the risks involved with Internet credit card fraud, he said. If a company stores its financial information on clouds, the data can be hacked if there is a lack of security, he said.

He said the researchers hope the project will help inform people about the risks involved with clouds.

“An important and legitimate goal for our research is simply education,” he said.

Fourth-year doctoral student at BU and project collaborator

Vatche Ishakian said he agreed that the risks should be made known.

“I want to enlighten the community,” he said.

In addition to creating a more secure environment for data to be stored, the project also aims to lower costs for putting data on the cloud, he said. Researchers want to minimize monopolies and encourage fair competition instead in order to keep cloud prices low, he said.

Ishakian said researchers want to introduce “the notion of having a marketplace and getting information cheaply and efficiently.”

“Academia is thinking ahead and playing the role of industry,” Bestavros said.

While the research is already an ongoing process and currently being studied, the techniques the researchers come up with can only be implemented through promotion, he said.

It could take another five to 10 years before clouds are fully effective, he said.

Nevertheless, if the cloud computing project succeeds, the way in which data are transmitted and stored could be transformed into a more secure and economically viable marketplace, he said.

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