Many predicted that some day the “Network will become the Computer” – and the IT giants of Microsoft, Amazon and Google are investing millions to tell you that time is now! The “remote” computing revolution in its simplest form means that PCs will eventually become antiques and all of our files, documents and classified information will eventually be stored literally online.
While weather forecasts aren’t always reliable, the digerati have come to depend on the services of the venerable top global search engine known as Google. So when its system fails, which it has been known to do of recent date, our collective confidence is shaken.
Most recently on February 24, when Google’s email system GMail ran out of juice, alarms went off throughout all of Cloud-ville. British users were the first to report that the system was down, and tests in New York at 7:30 AM EST revealed intermittent service where many users were unable to send or receive emails. Mobile Gmail service appeared to be down until about 8:45 AM EST.
Google did respond quickly with a posted apology: “We’re aware of a problem with Gmail affecting a number of users,” Google said in an advisory on its Gmail support site. “We’re working hard to resolve this problem and will post updates as we have them. We apologize for any inconvenience that this has caused.”
As we have come to expect, this news sent the twitterati into overdrive, with European critics labeling the incident another case of “Gfail!” A Dutchman with the Twitter handle of mmarjolein reminded us of Google’s monopolistic control by tweeting: “Dependence is a bitch.”
A subsequent update appeared 3 hours later, when Google ultimately resolved the problem: “Many of our users had difficulty accessing Gmail today. The problem is now resolved and users have had access restored. We know how important Gmail is to our users, so we take issues like this very seriously, and we apologize for the inconvenience.”
The impact of such an event affects a multitude of users. According to comScore, Google is the world’s third most popular web mail service just slightly behind Hotmail’s 283 million and Yahoo’s 274 million e-mail users.
This is not the only time Google caused panic. On January 31, 2009, Google also caused the Internet world to stand still for a whole 40 minutes! At that time, Google’s core service came to a halt. If one was to conduct a Google search, the warning message “This Site May Harm Your Computer” appeared persuasively underneath each and every search, leaving millions of surfers stranded in cyberspace.
Initially, the “malware” warning made searchers fear that the entire Internet was infected – because, after all, doesn’t Google actually control the entire Internet? Subsequent reports indicated that Google’s security messaging experienced a major melt down and was being repaired.
Once again the Twitterverse went abuzz alerting fellow twitterers of the mayhem with tweets that included the hashtag #googmayharm. As the micro-bloggers fired off moment-to-moment and play-by-play updates, 1000s of tweets flooded the system! One blogger said the glitch showed the dangers of having the majority of Internet users in the world relying on the Google monoculture for searches. Another, one BradBrownDotCom, joked: “The Google outage frightened me like a schoolgirl, until I remembered an old technology called ‘Yahoo’.”
So what is Cloud Computing, and how unreliable is it?
Cloud computing is an emerging technology available to e-commerce and other site owners who don’t have the time or resources to handle an information technology infrastructure. Cloud computing allows merchants to buy computing services and pay for them as they need them. Merchants can store images, content and data in the cloud for very low cost and serve it directly out of the cloud without developing their own internal mainframe.
Cloud users don’t pay for overhead or services they are not using. So, when demand is high, they pay for more services and when the demand decreases, they pay for less. The flexibility of cloud computing can be particularly appealing for e-commerce companies that experience seasonal shifts in sales activity. More and more companies that don’t have the time to deal with IT issues look to cloud computing for the majority of their data storage and retrieval.
What does Google’s cloud look like?
It’s a network made of hundreds of thousands, or by some estimates 1 million, inexpensive servers, each not much more powerful than the PCs we have in our homes. It stores staggering amounts of data, including numerous copies of the World Wide Web. This is the engine that propels searches faster, helping to ferret out answers to billions of queries in a fraction of a second. Unlike many traditional supercomputers, Google’s system never ages. When its individual pieces die, usually after about three years, engineers pluck them out and replace them with new, faster boxes. This means the cloud regenerates as it grows, almost like a living eco-system organism.
Temporary failures like Google’s highlight the risks and challenges for IT decision-makers considering cloud computing. During this outage, while an estimated 113 million Gmail accounts were forced to resort to Google’s new offline mode, introduced last month, the balance of Google service users were forced to just wait in a stalled position or use an alternate email service.
Liability for Google?
Criticism is building and many users are questioning whether glitches that affect so many will damage Google’s reputation. Given their generally unshakable reliability, it’s hard to imagine that these two incidents won’t have some detrimental effect on our confidence in Google’s dominance in the search world. Particularly, considering the amount of potential business that may have been lost by business travelers that rely heavily on Gmail, when traveling.
While Cloud Computing is the wave of future, Google lovers who entertain fantasies of a world without desktop PCs may have their heads in the clouds. Yes, many people will run Google apps that access cloud-based data, but dependency is the issue we will we will continue to rant about when the systems fail. During the short term, while this new technology is attempting to perfect itself, storing your data on the Internet is risky business, particularly when the forecast is indicating cloudy, overcast and no Gmail!