Is Your Data Safe in the Cloud? A Reflection of the AWS Outage

Cloud computing has given the technological world a much-needed gift in the form of easy storage and access. Whether you are an app developer, app user or binge-watcher of shows, the cloud provides you with the flexibility to operate from everywhere without losing any of your data.

It provides data on demand, wherever asked, and the whole system works on a pay-as-you-go basis. Cloud storage is, of course, internet-based and when you upload a piece of information to it, you can consider it stored safely.

Small business owners and large enterprises alike rely on cloud-based storage. Sometimes, it’s cheaper (depending on your cost and accounting model), but it’s always more convenient. With a cloud subscription, there is no need for buying expensive hardware—or software to manage backups, archival, security and so on. And, your cloud data is typically safe from theft, loss and natural disasters.

Instead, you buy space on the internet to help your next big idea bloom into something great, with a very manageable pricing structure.

Cloud services are very simple to use. The cloud provider owns and maintains all the hardware, software (and data centers, Internet, people, etc.) needed to provide your services. And, as long you’re connected to the internet you can access all your files, security and without incident.

About Amazon Web Services (AWS) / Cloud Computing Services

Amazon AWS is a huge player in cloud. AWS offers up services like computing, storage, analytics, database, applications and deployment services.and more. When you leverage Amazon Web Services, you can consider your work done.

Thousands of companies trust Amazon Web Services for their cloud needs and have found growth potential accompanied with an economical deal. It’s cost-effective, time-saving and very scalable for businesses of all sizes.

Then Comes a Major AWS Outage

On March 2nd, starting at 12:30pm ET, S3, a component of Amazon Web Services, stopped working for thousands of people globally and lasted for a solid five hours.  Many large websites were down for several hours, resulting in lost service and more importantly, profits.

“This is a pretty big outage,” said Dave Bartoletti, a cloud analyst with Forrester. “AWS had not had a lot of outages and when they happen, they’re famous. People still talk about the one in September of 2015 that lasted five hours,” he said.

The S3 system is used by 148,213 sites according to market research firm SimilarTech. It has “north of three to four trillion pieces of data stored in it,” Bartoletti said.

Among the websites affected include Expedia, Medium (makers of WordPress) and the U.S. Securities and Health Commission. The health services of Amazon cloud services as a whole was also found to be degraded within the same timeframe.

Here’s What Caused It

Amazon explained in a post that the outage was caused by ‘human error’ when some employees were trying to fix some billing issues in the system. According to the post, “an authorized S3 team member using an established playbook executed a command which was intended to remove a small number of servers for one of the S3 subsystems that is used by the S3 billing process. Unfortunately, one of the inputs to the command was entered incorrectly and a larger set of servers was removed than intended.”

Amazon had to restart all these systems and check all services again, which took several more hours. The S3 system had not been rebooted for several years, and had grown exponentially after the last reboot. This is what further delayed the restoration process. It all comes down to one wrong command. The post concluded with this apology:

Finally, we want to apologize for the impact this event caused for our customers. While we are proud of our long track record of availability with Amazon S3, we know how critical this service is to our customers, their applications and end users, and their businesses. We will do everything we can to learn from this event and use it to improve our availability even further.

This led to some concerns over the whole cloud computing structure. If a 12 billion dollar company faced outage caused by a wrong command, what does this mean for the industry?

Is Cloud Safe for Your Businesses?

This question and concern make perfect sense in a post-AWS outage world. There are typically two major concerns with your cloud data:

  1. Availability and recovery of your data
  2. Security of your data

The biggest risk with cloud services is to hand over your precious data to a company for storage. The fact that only 10% of the world’s data is stored in the cloud speaks to this point.

You might be hesitant to adopt cloud storage for fear of loss. Handing over all your files and data to a storage company can be a scary prospect.  This is Amazon’s second major outage in two and a half years. Service has been interrupted, but I haven’t heard any reports of permanent data loss.

The other major cloud concern is security. Just because your storage is backed up and archived does NOT mean your data is secure. 

12 cloud security threats

So how do cloud providers keep your data secure?

The most obvious way is through encryption, both while the data is in transit and while it is “at rest” on the cloud servers, explains Ian Massingham, Amazon Web Services’ (AWS) chief evangelist for Europe, Middle East and Africa.

AWS, by far the biggest public cloud platform provider with more than a million active customers a month, has more than 1,800 security controls governing its services, says Mr Massingham.

Customers can choose to control their own encryption keys if they wish, he says, as well as set the rules for who can and can’t access the data or applications.

“Most of our security innovation comes from customer demand,” he says, “so the bar for security gets ratcheted up every time.”

“But we’re not the owners or custodians of the data – we just supply the resources,” he says. “We don’t control how the data is protected, customers do.”

WOW! Read that again! It’s so very important. It implies you are still responsible for your cloud data and I agree 100%.

Here are two high-level tips for leveraging the cloud safely:

  1. Calculate your project’s cloud risk/reward—do the pros outweigh the cons? Holders of 10% of the world’s data says YES. Awareness is the key here. Go into it with both eyes wide open.
  2. Never forget that YOU are the owner of your data, YOU are responsible. Sure, you’ll leverage a cloud platform, but you OWN it, YOU’LL ensure its security.

Let’s Wrap It Up

Cloud is still “maturing” and as businesses we have to realize that we cannot ever put all of our “eggs” in one basket regardless of the sales pitch or the amount of market share any provider is able to capture.  AWS like many others seems too big to fail.  Any technologist would imagine the levels of redundancy and fault tolerance available would be on an epic scale yet there was still an outage.  This was a fairly significant outage as it affected many applications in a wide range of markets. 

For example, UTG practices a combination of “hybrid cloud” and “multi-cloud” to build in the resiliency that mitigate these issues even further. Although there are no 100% failsafe mechanisms by incorporating multiple cloud vendors and/or an on premise component to your cloud strategy, it’ll go a long way.

The fact that a human error could halt normal functioning of the world’s biggest cloud provider speaks of uncertainty which lies in any system of the world. Nobody can escape human error. It can occur anytime, just like an earthquake or a tsunami. You can try to prevent it by every means and maybe even achieve 99.9% resiliency, but the rest, nobody can escape.

In scientific terms:

“No machine can operate at 100 percent efficiency because some of the energy input will always be used to overcome the force of gravity and the effects of friction and air resistance. Even an optimally tuned engine heats up eventually.”

This isn’t just the law of physics, but also of every machine or system which runs in the world. While major cloud providers can also fall prey to errors and outages, backups and restoration will usually save your businesses from destruction. Just never forget to own your data, wherever it may live.


Brian Miller

Brian Miller

Brian was co-founder and president of United Technology Group, LLC (UTG), acquired by Coretelligent in 2019. As the SVP of Business Development for the Southern Region, he leads our sales efforts in this crucial geographic region. Brian’s background consist of leadership roles in sales, marketing and business development.

Tags: ,