Apple's forthcoming file storage and synchronization service isn't quite ready for enterprises.
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Apple's iCloud may eventually prove to be a godsend for individuals vexed by the challenge of synchronizing and accessing files across multiple devices, but the limited information that Apple has revealed about the service suggests it won't be business-friendly, at least initially.
Introduced at Apple's Worldwide Developer Conference earlier this week, iCloud is a hosted storage service that works by pushing copies of files stored on Apple's servers--music, ebooks, documents, apps, photos, photos, contacts, calendar entries, and email--to multiple devices registered to a single Apple ID. It is slated for release this fall and is already being tested by registered Apple developers.
iCloud currently works only with Apple's own applications, but the company is providing iCloud Storage APIs to enable developers to create third-party applications that take advantage of iCloud storage and data distribution.
Businesses, particularly small companies reliant on iOS and Mac OS X hardware, are likely to find iCloud an appealing way to simplify file management and distribution. But larger organizations are likely to find obstacles that prevent them from adopting iCloud, at least until Apple or some other vendor using the Cloud APIs addresses the following enterprise concerns.
No Service Level Agreement
Apple isn't offering a service level agreement, or SLA, that guarantees iCloud uptime or quality of service. This is a deal-breaker for many organizations. CIOs aren't going to entrust important data to a service that may or may not be available when needed, particularly given the performance issues affecting iCloud's predecessor, MobileMe, in 2008.
Lack of Clarity About Encryption
Until Apple provides further details about the quality and availability of encryption in iCloud, iOS 5, and Mac OS X Lion, businesses are going to be wary about allowing Apple to store and sync their sensitive data. Revelations earlier this year that Apple had been storing Wi-Fi hotspot data on users' iPhones without encryption haven't exactly burnished the company's reputation for security.
Apple is providing individuals with up to 5 GB of storage free; the company has not disclosed how much additional storage will be available or at what price. This is critical information both for individuals and companies: iCloud loses a lot of its potential value if it has limited room and can only accommodate a subset of one's files. Bandwidth limits may also be an issue.
Forrester analyst Frank Gillett, who recently penned a report about the emergence of the personal cloud, believes that IT will have to confront iCloud, due to the growing number of people using iPhones and iPads in the workplace. In a phone interview, he described a scenario in which an individual might access an emailed Word document on an iPad. Doing so would open the document in the iPad version Pages, Apple's word processing app, and would send a copy into iCloud and back to the user's other compatible devices, possibly in violation of corporate policy.
"IT is managing devices but iCloud transcends the device," Gillett observed. Apple, he said, is setting up a potential conflict that pits the individual and Apple against IT. "Putting IT in the position of having to block iCloud is not a good position for Apple to be in," he said.
However, given the work Apple has done to support policies and enterprise standards like Microsoft Exchange ActiveSync on the iPhone, Gillett expects the company will find a way to address these issues. "We haven't heard everything yet from Apple about how they're going to make this work," he said. "The company is going to have to do something to make this palatable."
Aaron Levie, CEO of box.net, a content management, sharing, and collaboration service, isn't so sure Apple will give companies what they need to utilize iCloud. "We don't think this product will change how Apple thinks about the enterprise," he said in a phone interview "... Apple has no kind of track record of thinking about its products in that respect."
Levie nonetheless sees Apple's iCloud as a positive development for cloud service vendors. He expects that if Apple makes its service as seamless as advertised, that will increase demand for enterprise tools that offer competitive simplicity and ease of use.
As Levie sees it, the concern for businesses is not so much synchronizing files across devices but providing the tools to share documents and collaborate on them in a controlled way.
Gillett anticipates that consumer-oriented cloud vendors will be able to provide that control through collaboration and sharing mechanisms. He points to Evernote as an example.
Rather than making a distinction between personal and corporate accounts, Gillett says, Evernote considers every account a personal account and corporate control of documents is exercised by sharing. Companies maintain accounts and share documents to individuals. To remove access, the administrator of the company account merely stops sharing the document with a specific individual.
In this way, consumer technology and corporate IT may yet make peace. And iCloud or something like it, after a year or two of refinement and additions, could find fans in large organizations.
Security concerns give many companies pause as they consider migrating portions of their IT operations to cloud-based services. But you can stay safe in the cloud, as this Tech Center report explains. Download it now. (Free registration required.)
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