Microsoft's well-publicized BPOS service outage illustrates how all cloud services experience downtime. But will that dissuade businesses from jumping to the cloud?
Customers of Microsoft's
BPOS service last week found themselves cut
off from email.
On May 10, malformed email traffic sparked a growing message
backlog that impacted some customers for up to six to nine hours. The issue
occurred again May 12, compounded by a separate but related problem that led to
customer delays as long as three hours.
Then, just to top off what was already a stressful week for
Microsoft's BPOS engineering teams, a failure in the Domain Name Service
hosting mail.microsoftonline.com stopped users from accessing Outlook Web
Access hosted in the Americas. That issue also affected Microsoft Outlook and
Microsoft Exchange ActiveSync devices.
Microsoft solved the issues and issued a mea culpa. "I'd
like to apologize to you, our customers and partners, for the obvious
inconveniences these issues caused," Dave Thompson, corporate vice president of
Microsoft Online Services, wrote in a May 12 posting on the Microsoft
Online Services Team Blog
. "We know that email is a critical part of your
business communication, and my team and I fully recognize our responsibility as
your partner and service provider."
In the wake of the issues, Microsoft has taken steps to
improve its communications with users. "Effective today, we updated our
communications procedures to be more extensive and timely," Thompson wrote.
"The primary mechanism for communicating to our customers on issues has been
and will continue to be the Service Health Dashboard."
He also insisted that the issues gripping BPOS haven't
affected Office 365, Microsoft's cloud-based productivity platform that
recently launched its public beta, or other company services. (Office 365 is
effectively the rebranding of BPOS.)
But the outages also raise some key questions about the
Microsoft is "all in" with regard to cloud services. Indeed,
CEO Steve Ballmer and other executives have spent much of the past year taking
every opportunity to tout the company's upcoming subscription platforms as the
wave of its future. Office 365, Windows Azure and other platforms represent
Microsoft's attempts to expand its revenue base beyond traditional,
desktop-bound software such as Windows and Office.
Microsoft's cloud emphasis also allows it to compete with
Google for large online contracts. Last October, Microsoft announced a
partnership with New York City's government to provide municipal employees with
access to cloud-based Microsoft applications, in what many saw as a response to
Google's agreement with the City of Los Angeles to provide cloud services to
its employees. The competition between the two companies has become so intense
that Google even sued the federal government after the Department of the
Interior allegedly denied its bid to update an email and messaging system-a $59
million, five-year contract that had gone to Microsoft's BPOS-Federal suite.
But while the cloud offers businesses some noted
advantages-chief among them, removing the need to maintain on-site IT
infrastructure-it also comes with certain risks. In April, an outage at Amazon
Web Services led to service disruptions across the Internet, affecting popular
Websites such as Reddit, Quora and Hootsuite.
The issues with Amazon led some companies to revert back to
on-premises solutions. "We are currently setting up dedicated servers with
hard-wired storage," wrote
, president of Assembla, a software development tools and
services provider affected by the EC2 downing. Nonetheless, he touted the benefits
of Amazon's cloud: "We recommend it because their truly on-demand server
resources make it possible to rapidly try things, fix things and innovate.
Innovation speed is important."
Amazon isn't alone in its outages. Google
lost some of its users' email data in February
, and launched an aggressive
effort at restoration. The possibility of at least some downtime is baked into
cloud contracts; the question is what happens with the outage is so
catastrophic that it results in data loss, or delays so lengthy they cause a
client to lose revenue. For most companies, including Microsoft, the response
to an event like the one that hit BPOS last week is to issue some sort of
credit for the cloud-time lost.
Even such well-publicized incidents, though, don't seem to
be dissuading businesses as to the ultimate benefits of the cloud. "Clouds will
have downtime-it's a fundamental issue," Andi Mann, chief cloud strategy guru
at CA Technologies, told
. "But you need to be ready for downtime, whether it's your own infrastructure
or cloud infrastructure. You need to understand what the risk is. It's all just
about risk management."
In other words, the more businesses gravitate toward the
cloud-and the more companies go "all in" on offering cloud services-the more
well-publicized cloud incidents will occur. But with each incident, it seems
that companies like Microsoft, Google and Amazon learn a little more what works
and what doesn't-and take steps to improve their services that much more. Their
future revenues depend on it.