Ambient Cloud Reduces Costs, Boosts Security

Distributed -- or ambient -- cloud storage requires that users chip in by providing disk space and gives them equivalent space in the cloud. Can storing others' data locally be secure?
When grid computing burst into the technology marketplace a decade ago, it changed how many people looked at computing power: The computers sitting on workers' desks were no longer just machines to be used by individuals. Instead, unused processing power could be harnessed to do a variety of large-scale tasks, such as running massive simulations, looking for a new drug, or identifying extraterrestrial communications.

Yet, another obvious use -- merging unused hard-drive space into a large cloud storage platform -- was hardly explored.

Now companies are beginning to investigate the possibilities, because satisfying people's appetite for storage by using large centralized data centers poses a number of problems. Data centers require enormous local resources -- most obviously energy and cooling -- but also knowledgeable administrators and large capital costs. Instead, linking together a client's own storage systems into a distributed cloud system can solve many of those issues, and may be more secure to boot, says Dave Asprey, vice president of cloud security for antivirus firm Trend Micro.

"The only viable long-term big-picture way to make the cloud work is to start pushing things out of the data center whenever you can, but manage them as if it was still in the data center," he says.

Ambient clouds allow users to store their data in a cloud made up of other users' hard drives. The distributed nature of the storage cloud -- combined with appropriate data duplication and error checking -- can create a redundant system to protect data from catastrophe. In addition, the technology necessary to spread the data amongst many hard drives securely requires a higher level of security than may be present in other cloud services, says Asprey.

"On the security side, it is interesting because you're breaking the file into multiple chunks, encrypting them, and then you are putting them in many different places, so if an attacker wanted to come after your data, they couldn't just steal a hard drive," he says. "So it is harder to get to the data when it is distributed than when it is centralized."

That the ambient cloud may have superior security is somewhat ironic considering one of the original uses of distributed cloud storage was by botnets, such as the Conficker worm. Cyber criminals do not have large central data centers, but they are able to build powerful collections of compromised computers that rival many data centers and supercomputing clusters.

Other distributed storage systems, such as Bittorrent, could be considered an early variant of ambient cloud storage as well.

One company that aims to take the concept mainstream is Symform. Like other cloud storage services, from Amazon to Dropbox to iCloud, Symform allows users to get a nominal amount of storage space for free. Users that want more can connect their computers into the Symform distributed network and get an equivalent amount of cloud storage for a fixed fee.

The encryption is done on the users' computers, but the key management is handled by the company. The result is that the company cannot read data in the cloud -- a concern with some services, such as Dropbox -- but the user does not have to worry about generating and storing strong encryption keys, says Praerit Garg, president and co-founder of the company.

Even an attack, such as cornering a large portion of the storage in the cloud, would have a incalculably-difficult task of piecing the data back together, he says. The data is so unreadable that Garg argues that it should be considered locally stored for the intents of such privacy regulations as the European Union data protection directive.

"When the data is actually stored on the computers, there is no identification that ties that data back to a file," Garg says. "What you are getting are literally a bunch of garbage bits."

The concept, however, needs to prove itself and be battle- tested by security researchers before companies will be ready to put their most sensitive data on, what is conceptually, other people's hard drives, says Trend's Asprey.

"I think enterprises would have a deep allergy to having their data everywhere," he says. "Even today, you have server-huggers -- admins who won't let their data be on anything but their own servers. Even for consumers, this is kind of a futuristic thing."

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