27 July 2010—The term cloud computing evokes whimsical images of angels compulsively checking their e-mails from pillowy cumuli. But in reality, the phrase refers to a ubiquitous but poorly defined method of virtual resource sharing. The concept has garnered a lot of attention, but skeptics have questioned whether private data and essential computing needs can be trusted to strangers in the cloud.
Computer scientists at Victoria University, in New Zealand; Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, in Germany; and Cardiff University, in the United Kingdom, say their approach could make the concept of cloud computing more palatable. At the IEEE Cloud 2010 conference in Miami on 5 July, they proposed the creation of a "social cloud," which would facilitate the sharing of information, hardware, and services by using the computing resources of a person’s online network "friends."
The researchers say that existing friendships on social media sites like Facebook could provide a reliable framework for long-term, regulated resource sharing. However, social networking would have to be combined with certain market controls like financial payments, social ranking, or credit trading to encourage appropriate behavior in such a setup, they say. Sharing within a network of friends, according to the researchers, could cut down on privacy concerns and certain inefficiencies inherent to conventional cloud computing.
Though they’re not the first to consider construction of a social cloud, the computer scientists say they are the first to propose a specific infrastructure through which it could operate. Their model integrates social networking, cloud computing, and "volunteer computing," which is a method of pooling storage and computational resources such as those used by the extraterrestrial-signal-seeking SETI@home.
In their early-stage research, the team used Facebook as its prototypical social network. The social cloud is presented as an application accessed through the site. According to Kyle Chard, a doctoral researcher at Victoria University, the model works by connecting users to resources posted in online "marketplaces." In the experimental model, users acquire the resources by exchanging virtual credits. Additional credits cannot be purchased, only earned through participation. A virtual economy like this one, the researchers say, acts as an internal control, encouraging the sharing of resources and preventing their overuse.
Some experts find the proposal intriguing but are troubled by fundamental questions. In today’s social networks, the general mind-set is "the more friends you have, the better," says Maik Lindner, who studies cloud computing at SAP Research CEC Belfast, in Northern Ireland, with funding from the European Union. This the-more-the-merrier mind-set is "contradictory to having trust derived from social networks," he says. Also, Lindner says, the fact that the social cloud operates on the premise of mixing business with pleasure could spoil the friend network, a possibility that may detract from its appeal to potential users.
The idea is "clever," says Bernie Hogan, a research fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute at the University of Oxford, in England, but he agrees with Lindner that there are downsides to introducing a market-driven system into a social network, because social networks are "based on different values and norms."
For now, the research team emphasized that this is a preliminary model. However, in response to skeptics who argue that most online friendships do not translate into trusting relationships, Kris Bubendorfer, professor of computer science at Victoria University, has an answer. "We don’t assume that all members within a social network have the same level of trust," he says. Rather, the social cloud relies on existing Facebook friend-sorting mechanisms, which group people according to the type of association they have with one another and could be used to assess different levels of trust between users, says Bubendorfer. Social cloud users would also be able to define the limits of their resource sharing, choosing to make their documents and services available to different groups depending on the perceived level of trust.
The result, say the researchers, could be a more active cloud-computing community that has the potential to expand and contract based on real-life relationships and the needs of users.