The President's Message

MAY 2011

Rick Curry

Our next meeting is one week earlier than usual, on May 21, due to a scheduling conflict with the Boys & Girls Club. Thanks to Toby and Michael for their sudden ad-lib performance at our last meeting. Our scheduled speaker was unable to let us know he was not coming, so that presentation was off the cuff. Well done.

Terms for the pie in the sky offered by clouds remain nebulous Naturally there are some surprises to be expected with new technology, and we should not be surprised that Yahoo recently hit a bump along the information superhighway and spilled its coffee with its new cloud implementation.

For those blissfully unaware of Yahoo's recent trouble (and perhaps unaware of "clouds" entirely), there is a push in the market to move some computer services off personal computers in front of a worker to high-powered machines across the Internet. The basic idea of a "service" to handle, for instance, the accounting at a company is an old one. The implementation is now different (there are no longer acoustic modems that you push your telephone handset into for one thing), but the idea of a company assuming another company's responsibility for a computing task is old.

The legal terms for this transfer of responsibility are also quite old and can seem quite harsh by today's standards. Some of this harshness is demanded by the legal requirements of payroll functions in a company. In any case, the penalties for a service company failing to perform payroll functions in a timely manner would typically be quite severe. Extrapolating these terms to the newer cloud model for implementing these services, one would expect harsh terms for failures in Cloud services.

The test failure just happened. Much of the northeast of the U.S. lost its Yahoo Cloud services recently. The failures spread across areas that should have been insulated from each other; the new technology failed to deliver a new feature - completely isolated virtual machines. The failure was severe, many were impacted, and terms of service were violated.

While it was unforeseen that the systems would fail in this particular way,it is a normal part of bringing a new product to market, and failures in general were expected. So, how bad was the penalty for Yahoo going to be? Surely Yahoo would have left some room in its contract to avoid penalties while the new technology is still brand new.

Yes, Yahoo has left itself some breathing room in its contracts. It turns out that in the great "dirigibles with computers" model, Yahoo did not book itself a seat on the Hindenburg. Yahoo was only guaranteeing the pieces would be in place, not that the job would get done. Many companies lost their services, but Yahoo may have succeeded in avoiding the penalties.

Yahoo defined its responsibility to be network and computer availability. If the company's payroll software fails, it is not the fault of Yahoo, certainly. It makes sense that a cloud provider must insulate itself from responsibilities for things it has no control over. And thus the camel's nose begins to slip into the tent.

It turns out that Yahoo did a particularly good job of writing its contract, and the only time it is responsible is when its client has completely implemented a series of engineering changes that allow the jobs to be performed on any machine. So when you buy cloud services, you may or may not be actually using those services, depending on whether you have done your homework. And if you are not using the services, you get no assurance your payroll is getting done.

Yahoo has a reasonable position in that it has the need to limit its liability. And businesses want, and perhaps need, to be able to transfer their payroll and other legal liabilities to services with expertise in the field. Perhaps a new set of industries will bridge this liability gap, but for now the responsibility seems to have fallen into a legal abyss.

As this impacts business, it is a safe bet that it will be resolved. Does this mean that software will start coming with anything like a guarantee? I suppose we can always dream about a time when the long legal agreement we must click "I agree" to says something more than "you are on your own" as far as what you can reasonably expect from a program.

I can see a time when certain functions are guaranteed. If the service company puts its machine on your network, then it can start to guarantee some things about how its payroll (or other) service will work. And this can affect us in our home computing if we want certain guarantees; say for instance we want a reliable home banking terminal.

Happy computing!