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Putting Your Data in Danger

Saturday, October 24th, 2009

Would you entrust your data to a company called “Danger”? Microsoft and T-Mobile did. And it was your data, if you were a Sidekick user.

The adventure began on October 10th. The headline in TechCrunch read “T-Mobile Sidekick Disaster: Danger’s Servers Crashed, And They Don’t Have A Backup.” Jason Kincaid, author of the TechCrunch article, was absolutely scathing on the subject:

This goes beyond FAIL, face-palm, or any of the other internet memes we’ve come to associate with incompetence. The fact that T-Mobile and/or Microsoft Danger don’t have a redundant backup is simply inexcusable, especially given the fact that the Sidekick is totally reliant on the cloud because it doesn’t store its data locally.

I’ve never used a Sidekick, but a mobile device that doesn’t store phone numbers, etc locally at all seems bizarre, and in fact I’m not sure that statement is quite accurate, given suggestions in other articles that if you keep the Sidekick charged and turned on, you would at least save anything in its current memory.

But then, I still have a “dumbphone,” so what do I know about how these things work?

By October 11th, T-Mobile had posted the following discouraging notice on its user forums:

Regrettably, based on Microsoft/Danger’s latest recovery assessment of their systems, we must now inform you that personal information stored on your device — such as contacts, calendar entries, to-do lists or photos — that is no longer on your Sidekick almost certainly has been lost as a result of a server failure at Microsoft/Danger.

Not surprisingly, the media has been all over the story. “Microsoft has said that the hardware failure that caused the problem took out both the primary and backup copies of the database that contained Sidekick users’ information,” Ina Fried wrote on October 12th. “But the question remains, why wasn’t there a true independent backup of the data?”

That would certainly be my question. Rafe Needleman, also writing for CNET on October 12th, concluded that you can’t trust the cloud because you can’t trust the people running it. The problem, in other words, is not one of technology. Tech support staff often refer to problems that start “between the keyboard and the chair.”

If it’s possible to create independent, redundant backups in your own data center, it’s possible to do it in the data centers used by cloud computing companies. The only difference  is that you can’t walk down the hall and see that they’ve done it. Some people will slack off when you aren’t there to hold them accountable, but that’s not true of everyone. As Lance Ulanoff concluded in his October 13th article, “Don’t Blame Cloud Computing for the T-Mobile Mess,”

Obviously, something went very, very wrong with T-Mobile and Microsoft’s Sidekick data set-up, but let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater (or the cloud with the rainwater). The cloud isn’t the problem. Instead, I blame the people—as always.

But the Register, with typically British enthusiasm for a pun, declared “Danger Lurks in the Clouds” on October 18th. The danger is that all mobile devices will rely increasingly on a working connection to provide any functions at all. Nevertheless, author Bill Ray concludes:

Cloud-based servers are still more reliable than most of the kit knocking around users’ homes – the life expectancy of an Apple Time Capsule, for example, is just over 17 months according to the Time Capsule Memorial Register, so even those who are backing up locally shouldn’t be too smug.

That article concludes, in the Register’s usual tongue-in-cheek fashion, that paper is the only safe storage medium.

By October 20th, Microsoft and Danger had in fact been able to restore some of the data, as reported in CNET and on T-Mobile’s user forum. That’s a happier ending than Sidekick owners had been led to expect. I’m glad they got their data back, but if I’d been affected, I’d want more.

I’d want to know what the company was going to do differently from now on so that this wouldn’t happen again. And I’d want a free application that would let me back up all my contacts, calendar entries, etc, onto my computer. It wouldn’t even have to sync with Outlook or Google or Mac-whatever, as long as I’d be able to restore the data to my mobile device.

Finally, as an occasional naming consultant, I want to see Microsoft Danger rebranded. What incentive do you have to entrust something valuable to a company called Danger? What incentive do employees of a company called Danger have to be careful? Danger is a fun name for a company that makes games, but for data storage, it just sounds unreliable.

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