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Microsoft's BFF: Google Gmail Outage, Day 3

Google (GOOG) is into the third day of a Gmail outage. Not that most people notice, as Google claims that the problems are restricted to 0.02 percent of its users. But that problem is really, really bad: the loss of every single email. Google is trying to put its best face on things, but it knows that any episode like this helps undermine its attempts to capture business from Microsoft (MSFT), which can just sit back, watch, and laugh.

Corporate sales are difficult. Vendors have to appeal to CEOs, CFOs, and CIOs at the same time. When there are questions of reliability, no matter how statistically rare, everyone starts to get nervous, because they can't afford to have their users in the minority of those affected.

Unfortunately, there is no way to talk around performance problems when they become public. A blog post late yesterday by Ben Treynor, Google vice-president of engineering and "site reliability czar" tried, but it came across badly:

Imagine the sinking feeling of logging in to your Gmail account and finding it empty. That's what happened to 0.02% of Gmail users yesterday, and we're very sorry. The good news is that email was never lost and we've restored access for many of those affected. Though it may take longer than we originally expected, we're making good progress and things should be back to normal for everyone soon. I know what some of you are thinking: how could this happen if we have multiple copies of your data, in multiple data centers? Well, in some rare instances software bugs can affect several copies of the data. That's what happened here. Some copies of mail were deleted, and we've been hard at work over the last 30 hours getting it back for the people affected by this issue.
Oops. Not to fear, though, because Google has ... tape backup. Shades of old technology. More importantly, a statement a little further down raises an ugly question:
We released a storage software update that introduced the unexpected bug, which caused 0.02% of Gmail users to temporarily lose access to their email. When we discovered the problem, we immediately stopped the deployment of the new software and reverted to the old version.
Clearly, the only reason a small portion of users were affected was because Google noticed the problem and stopped deployment. So, what percentage of users actually affected by the deployment lost everything? Certainly more than 0.02 percent. How much more Google will never say, but IT executives must suspect the worst. That's their job. What if no one noticed for a longer period of time?

Google service outages are nothing new:

The Google Apps Premier Edition Agreement also has an uptime guarantee of 99.9%. Gmail had six outages in an eight month period of 2008 but Google said it still averaged 99.9% uptime. In February 2009, Google Apps Premier Edition paying customers received a service credit because uptime dropped to 95% due to a February 24 outage. Google reported Google Mail service interruptions in November, 2010, with the most recent outage being on December 3, 2010.
And that's aside from the difficulty Google had in moving the city of Los Angeles to hosted services on deadline last year. But then, Microsoft had its own troubles in August and September of last year that reduced uptime to 98.07 percent, rather than a promised 99.9 percent.

But Google and Microsoft come to this business from very different starting places. Google must typically convince customers to give up such on-premises software as Office, Exchange, and SharePoint -- all from Microsoft -- and switch to something else. All Microsoft need argue for is replacing itself and keeping Google at arm's length.

It's the devil you know versus that strange one in the corner syndrome. For IT departments, Google has the more difficult sale because of the additional hurdles and potential uncertainty. Not that Google has been unable to woo customers, but it has largely done so on a price strategy. That can work for a while. But once management starts down that road, it becomes difficult for them to drive for higher margins. And, so, Google may have locked what should be an important business line into a commodity play that won't ultimately help the company diversity its revenue.


Image: morgueFile user ppdigital, site standard license.
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