Rohit KhareAfter this week’s Google/Microsoft column appeared in the New York Times, I got a message from an old friend, Rohit Khare, that sparked some thinking about our vulnerability as individuals when our data is held in the cloud — somebody else’s cloud.  How do we save it, get it back, destroy it? Given the recent case of Facebook hanging-on to old user data essentially forever, this is not just a theoretical concern.

“’Cancellation on a whim’ is a key insight,” wrote Rohit.  “After all, with desktop software you at least had the right to keep using what you wanted, as long as you kept the old hardware/software/OS running — I know of mission-critical custom apps still running on Win98!”

“SaaS (Software as a Service) for businesses may have SOME rights, but consumer services leave you completely out in the cold, and are unavailable afterwards at ANY price.”

Well Rohit, whom I met when he was an undergraduate at CalTech, who later earned a PhD from UC Irvine, and has worked for both the World Wide Web Consortium and some startups, ought to know, but I find myself wondering if, in fact, we really ARE out of luck when our SaaS vendor packs it in?

Say your favorite web-based application is suddenly unavailable because the group that wrote it has disbanded, are you truly SOL, those embarrassing pictures of your old girlfriends gone forever?  Today I’d say “yes,” unless you’ve made a heroic effort to save the data in some database or file system that is unlikely to be compatible with the original application. No vendor I am familiar with has created an end-of-life (EOL) migration tool, though they certainly could.  What we need is an API and I am here to propose one.

If web- and cloud-based application software is here to stay (it is) then there will inevitably be backup and EOL issues as platforms and companies die or are acquired.  The best way to handle this in my view is for the Internet Archive to propose an Application Programming Interface to handle data migration and preservation issues for obsolete web applications and services.

I think there is nothing Brewster Kahle, the Archive’s founder, would like better than to preserve for posterity such code and associated data.

Imagine a social network app that would continue to work after death, at least to the extent that members could retrieve (or destroy) their own information.

The problem with this idea, of course, is that this also creates a very attractive interface for hackers and thugs.  But I have an answer to that, too.  What we need is the digital equivalent of one of those envelopes characters sometimes leave in books and movies — an envelope inevitably labeled “to be opened in the event of my death.”

Participating organizations would store compressed and encrypted versions of their data with the Internet Archive, where they would be held in an inactive state but updated frequently.  Then, in the event of that outfit’s death, the digital envelope would be opened, revealing a decryption key and enough application code to get a vanilla version of the original net app up and running.  It would, as archives are intended to do, preserve the final state of the application as well as its final data.

This is going to be a big problem in the future .  I suggest we think about it now.

Meanwhile, back to Rohit, whose new company is called Ångströ.  Two obscure punctuation marks in a single name tell me this is a company to spelled with. Ångströ apparently creates real time notifications when specific data changes in social network applications, creating a kind of cross-platform news feed about you or anyone else you happen to be stalking.  Cool.

Everything Rohit is involved with is interesting.  His threaded discussion group, Friends of Rohit Khare (FoRK) has been around for more than a decade and has long offered some of the most interesting (and funniest) examinations of technology news on the Net.  It is now an age-restricted group on Yahoo.

Rohit does everything his own way.  When he was still an undergraduate I employed Rohit and his business partner Adam Rifkin as consultants, bringing them to Japan to make a presentation to a major client.  The trip was L.A. to Tokyo and back but Rohit and Adam parsed the United Airlines routes until they found a way to get to Tokyo for the same money by going around the world FIRST CLASS, earning quadruple frequent flier miles in the process.  The boys arrived on schedule though lubricated the entire way with Johnny Walker Blue Label.

We dried them out a bit and their presentation was boffo.