Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Gmail goes down, world survives (barely)

As widely reported by the blogosphere, Gmail was down earlier today for anywhere from 2 to 4 hours. Panic did not ensue...except on Twitter. Plenty has been said about the downtime event (and the demise of the cloud thanks to events like this). I want to focus on my favorite topic...how transparent was Google, and did they use this opportunity to build longer term trust in their service? Let's read a few select quotes that I found most illuminating:

What's more disturbing than the Gmail outage is Google's lack of transparency about it. The most recent post on Google's official blog declares the problem over, apologizes for the inconvenience, and explains why some users had to prove to Google that they were human beings before being allowed to log in to their Gmail accounts. But it provides no explanation whatever of what went wrong or what had been done to fix it or prevent its recurrence.

Amazon, by contrast, maintains a Service Health Dashboard for its Amazon Web Services with both a report on the current status of each service and a 35-day history of any problems (I can't tell you how good the reports are because the current time frame shows no incidents.) At a minimum, Google should maintain a similar site for the folks who have come to depend on its services.
Google has apologized and says it isn’t yet sure what happened: I’d love to see the company follow up with a post discussing the outage, its cause, and the company’s response. I’m curious, for instance, whether there’s a single explanation for the multiple problems that the service has had in the past few months.
Finally, it may not hurt to have a few links to the Google Blog and Gmail Blog on your Intranet so that they can find out if something catastrophic is happening. One of my users was smart enough to do this and alert the office.
Almost everyone I follow on Twitter seems to use Gmail. At all points during the outage, almost my entire stream was consumed with tweets about Gmail being down. And Twitter Search, perhaps the ultimate search engine for what people are complaining about in real time, not only had the term “Gmail” as a trending topic of discussions within minutes of Gmail failing, but it also saw “IMAP” and “Gfail” rise into the top terms as well.
Conclusion: Not enough transparency. Twitter again is the only means users had to share what was going on. Google's blog post was nice, but not enough to sate most people. I'm hoping Google comes out with a more detailed analysis, if nothing else to show that they are really trying.

Lessons learned: Provide more to your users then a single "We know there's a problem, and we're sorry" type blog post. This is the bare minimum, something the little guys should be doing. A service as prevelant as GMail must be more transparent. A simple health status dashboard would be a good start. Communicating status updates (at least once an hour) over Twitter would be powerful. Having an obvious place for your users to find status updates would be a start.

To close on a positive note, I think it was put best by Seeking Alpha:
I remember a few years back when my company’s email went down - for days, not hours. It would come back and then go away again as the IT team worked to troubleshoot and fix the problem. The folks working on that IT team weren’t necessarily e-mail experts, though. They were charged with doing everything from upgrading software to configuring network settings. Troubleshooting email was just another job duty.

I still maintain that a cloud-based solution - whether Google’s or anyone else’s - is a more efficient way of running a business. Don’t let one outage - no matter how widespread - tarnish your opinion of a cloud solution. Outages happen both in the cloud and at the local client level. And having been through a days-long outage, I’d say that this restore time was pretty quick.

One final thought: who out there communicates by e-mail alone these days? Speaking for myself, I’m reachable on Twitter, Facebook, SMS text, and Yahoo IM - among other services. Increasingly, e-mail isn’t as business critical as it once was. If you need to communicate with people to get the job done, I’m sure you can think of at least one other way to keep those communications alive beyond just e-mail.

Yes, the outage was bad. But it wasn’t the end of the world.

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