On Friday, August 23rd, the Chinese government quietly released Shi Tao from prison. He was released a full fifteen months before his incarceration was supposed to end. While certainly a relief to his family and friends, it’s likely a bittersweet ending to a sour turn of events.
Just who is Shi Tao and what the heck does he have to do with Big Data? Why is he important to Cloud Computing and big infrastructure? Is he a world-class engineer who understands technology at scale? Is he a deep thinker of all things cloud? Did he invent some new technology poised to revolutionize and leap frog our understanding?
No. He is none of these things.
He is a totem of sorts. A living parable and a reminder of the realities that many in the Cloud Computing industry and those who deal with Big Data, rarely if ever address head on or give little mind to. He represents the cautionary tale of what can happen if companies and firms don’t fully vet the impacts of their Technology Choices grounded by the real world. The site selection of their data centers. The impact of how data is stored. Where that data is stored. The methods used of storing the data. In short a responsibility for the full accounting and consideration of their technological and informational artifacts.
To an engineering mind that responsibility generally means the most efficient storage of data with the least amount of cost. Using the most direct method or the highest performing algorithm. In short…to continually build a better mouse trap.
In site selecting of new data centers it would likely be limited to just the basic real estate and business drivers. What is the power cost? What is the land cost? What is my access to water? Is there sufficient network nearby? Can I negotiate tax breaks at the country and/or at local levels?
In selecting a cloud provider its generally about avoiding large capital costs and paying what I need, when I need it.
In the business landscape of tomorrow, these thoughts will prove short-sighted and may likely expose your company to significant cost and business risks they are not contemplating or worse!
Big Data is becoming a dangerous game. To be fair content and information in general has always been a bit of a dangerous game. In Technology, we just go on pretending we live under a Utopian illusion that fairness ultimately rules the world. It doesn’t. Businesses have an inherent risk collecting, storing, analyzing , and using the data that they obtain. Does that sound alarmist or jaded? Perhaps, but its spiced with some cold hard realities that are becoming ever more present every day and you ignore at your own peril.
Shi was arrested in 2004 and sentenced to prison the following year on charges of disclosing state secrets. His crime? He had sent details of a government memo restricting news coverage to a human rights group in the United States. The Chinese government demanded that Yahoo! (his mail provider) turn over all mail records (Big Data) to the authorities. Something they ultimately did.
Now Before you go and get your Western Democracy Sensibilities all in a bunch and cry foul-that ugly cold hard reality thing I was talking about plays a real part here. As Yahoo was operating as a business inside China, they were bound by comply with Chinese law no matter how hard the action was to stomach for them. Around that time Yahoo sold most of its stake in the Chinese market to Alibaba and as of the last month or so Yahoo has since left China altogether.
Yahoo’s adventure in Data information risk and governmental oversight was not over however. They were brought before the US Congress on charges of Human Rights Violations. Placing them once again into a pot of boiling water from a governmental concern closer to home.
These events took place back almost seven years ago and I would argue that the world of information, big data, and scaled infrastructure has actually gotten more convoluted and tricky to deal with. With the advent of Amazon AWS and other cloud services, a lack of understanding of regional and local Safe Harbor practices amongst enterprises and startups alike, concepts like chain of custody and complicated and recursive ownership rights can be obfuscated to the point of insanity if you don’t have a program to manage it. We don’t have to use the example of China either, similar complexities are emerging across and internal to Europe . Is your company really thinking through Big Data? Do you fully understand ownership in a clouded environment? Who is responsible for taxation for you local business hosted internationally? What if your cloud servers ,with your data, hosted by a cloud platform were confiscated by local and regional governments without your direct involvement? Are you strategically storing data in a way that protects yourself? Do you even have someone looking at these risks to your business?
As a recovering network engineer I am reminded by an old joke referring to the OSI Model. The OSI Model categorizes all functions of a communication system into seven logical layers. It makes internetworking clear and efficient and easily categorized. Of course, as every good network engineer knows, it doesn’t account for layers 8 and 9. But wait! You said there were only 7! Well Layers 8 and 9 are Politics and Religion. These layers exist in Cloud Computing and Big Data too and are potentially more impactful to the business overall.
All of these scenarios do not necessarily lend themselves to be the most direct or efficient, but its pretty clear that you can save yourself a whole lot of time and heartache if you think about them strategically. The infrastructure of tomorrow is powerful, robust, and ubiquitous. You simply cannot manage this complex eco-system the same ways you have in the past and just like the technology your thinking needs to evolve.