Cloud computing services play an integral role in enabling a range of commercial activities, public services, and critical infrastructure. As more organizations choose to access a range of IT services from cloud providers, rather than relying solely on their own on-premise infrastructure, cloud services have become woven into the societal fabric and are growing increasingly essential to the services we use; the screens that inform and entertain us; the food we buy or have delivered; the planes and trains we ride in; the cars we drive; and the healthcare we seek, along with countless other aspects of our daily lives. Cloud computing is a central part of the economy, with companies projected to spend $576 billion on cloud computing in 2023. And by the end of 2026, cloud services are projected to account for over two-thirds of all computing and storage infrastructure. The fundamental design of evolving technologies, such as self-driving vehicles and artificial intelligence, will rely on the power of the cloud to access, communicate, collect, store, process, analyze, and share information and knowledge. Given the cloud’s vast and growing benefits, its importance to our collective future is limited primarily by imagination.
The benefits of our broad shift to cloud services are many and diverse. They have allowed greater efficiency in information technology (IT) operations and have empowered individuals and organizations to undertake assignments that were previously costly, difficult, and in some cases entirely out of reach. Technical architecture and physical resources that twenty years ago would have taken months to provision and put together today can be accessed from cloud providers within minutes. In addition to offering new possibilities for greatly expanding the breadth of their services and the reach of critical functions, cloud services have also provided societies and economies with a much greater capacity to handle adversity, as seen during the coronavirus pandemic and related disruptions. There are also significant security gains that come with delegating security of cloud infrastructure to experienced cloud service providers that can bring scope, reach, and economies of scale to bear on the management of risk, although both the providers and their customers share the overall responsibility of risk mitigation.
As more organizations consolidate the management of their IT services to cloud providers, prudence would advise cloud-dependent societies to examine and understand the potential and likelihood of a major disruption or distortion of cloud services, and how it might impact the range of organizations that rely on these services. Notwithstanding the massive investments that providers of cloud services have made to build their operational security and resilience, disruptions of cloud services do occur. Thankfully, most of these disruptions have been resolved to date with relatively little impact on the users. A large-scale disruption of a major cloud provider (or providers) with cascading impacts has not occurred, but the possibility of such an event cannot not be ruled out. It is reasonable, given the stakes involved, to examine the probability of, consequences from, and means to address potential large-scale disruption, regardless of its likelihood. (Indeed, there is no material harm in doing so). Such an event could, in principle, be caused by a wide range of hazards, including technical failures, malicious actions caused by insiders or external actors, or natural disasters such as earthquakes, tsunamis, and hurricanes.