Imagine you’re working in an office building and the lights on every floor suddenly go out and stay out. Hours pass, then an entire day, and the office is still dark. When the power company bothers to acknowledge that there’s a problem, they don’t say when the juice might come back. So they wait frantically in the gloom.
That despair is not unlike what over a million designers, graphic artists, and developers who rely daily on Adobe’s Creative Cloud Suite felt on Wednesday and Thursday as the service went down for over 24 hours.
Launched in 2013, the Creative Cloud Suite (CCS) is a web-based package of design and development tools including Photoshop, Illustrator, and Typekit. Users pay an annual subscription ($600 for individuals or $840 per user for teams) rather than a one-time price, and in turn they get services like online backup and file-sharing—especially useful for company-wide collaboration.
Adobe claims that their cloud apps will work offline as well. But many paying subscribers are finding themselves locked out.
Starting on Wednesday at around 5 PM EST, Adobe displayed a maintenance message for the service. Other non-design services, like Adobe Business Catalyst, which hosts email fundraising campaigns and e-commerce, also went down. This sudden unavailability—like the lights flicking off—highlights the problems of cloud computing even as we’re coming to depend on it more heavily. In a time of hackers, surveillance concerns, and corporate collusion with the government, just how much can we trust the online services that are supposed to replace the software on our desktops? And how much are we supposed to trust a single company—Adobe—that has so much control over our creative class?
“The outage has created a huge amount of heartache,” says James Kelleher, creative director of the Dublin-based app studio Pilcrow. Kelleher’s client projects rely on Typekit, the CCS application used to design with custom typefaces. “Either I wait it out for Adobe to fix the problem and risk the ire of clients on deadline, or I’ll have to fork out for expensive stand-alone font licenses to use fonts that I’ve already paid Adobe a subscription fee for,” he explains.
“The amount of productivity that has been lost across the world in the last day is mind-boggling,” says one designer who uses Adobe while working with major mainstream media publishers. Adobe’s Digital Publishing Suite, a tool for creating iPad publications that is now almost entirely cloud-based, is also offline. “With the meltdown, the process of moving from cloud to iPad cannot be done,” the designer says, nor can new material be pushed to the Apple Newsstand. “This is screwing anybody who uses Adobe InDesign to create interactive digital editions. It’s a nightmare in an industry that is runs on tight deadlines, whether they be internal or external.”
(Representatives for Adobe did not respond to requests to comment.)
Others are smug that they stayed off the cloud altogether. Robert Lawrence runs a digital media consultancy in Michigan. He decided to stick with Adobe’s earlier, offline Creative Suite 6 rather than upgrade—a feasible strategy for a small business. CCS’s subscription model “locks you into a single financial option and it leaves you vulnerable to systemic risk, as we are currently witnessing,” he writes in an email. “What good is that enhanced functionality if you can’t use the program?”
Should the CCS outage continues, designers will be faced with another choice: to stick with the platform or try to cobble together another solution, though there may not be another as holistic as Adobe. If it stays down, “I’ll start by slamming my hand in the desk drawer for a minute or so,” Kelleher says. “And then it’s time to reconsider how much I rely on Adobe software.”
CCS eventually went back up late Thursday night. But the concerns about the major cloud services linger.
According to Glenn Greenwald’s new book, No Place to Hide, Microsoft may have willingly allowed the NSA’s PRISM program to access its SkyDrive cloud service starting in March 2013. The company seemed to collaborate with the agency in giving away user information: “This success is the result of the FBI working for many months with Microsoft to get this tasking and collection solution established,” one leaked document reads. “This means that analysts will no longer have to make a special request to SSO [the U.S. Special Security Office] for this.” In other words, the cloud only serves to speed up the NSA’s access to your data.
And while Adobe isn’t directly linked to NSA surveillance, many of its competitors are. The NSA has boasted that it can collect data from Yahoo and Google with equal ease (don’t even ask about the pushover Snapchat). But in August 2013, Google Drive, the company’s cloud-based storage service that provides for over 120 million users, began rolling out server-side encryption for its Drive clients. If Google encodes the data before storing it online and only decodes it when the user accesses it, the process will make things more difficult for the NSA, though by no means impossible.
Fear of the cloud—whether it’s privacy concerns or outage issues—has motivated a small boom in boutique cloud services that trumpet their encryption and 100 percent uptime. These range from iDrive and the Kickstarter-backed Transporter to the geek-friendly Least Authority and Kim Dotcom’s Mega. Perhaps those alternatives seem more appealing than Google or Adobe because they’re small start-ups rather than the entrenched tech giants we’ve come to distrust.
But if the outrage incited by the Adobe outage is any clue, cloud-induced paranoia seems to be more a result of shock that our software doesn’t do exactly what we tell it to do all the time. To protect their own interests, consumers will need to be more proactive in understanding what the tools they use actually do and how dependable they are. Whether Adobe’s CCS survives or not largely depends on how well it avoids annoying its users.