Why Instapaper Struggled to Recover From a Prolonged Service Outage

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Why Instapaper Struggled to Recover From a Prolonged Service Outage

Instapaper is a popular online service for users to save online content for future reading on mobile devices. But on Feb. 8, Instapaper suffered an outage, which the company said was caused by a database error. While the company was able to get the service back up and running on Feb. 9, Instapaper said that archived content saved before Dec. 20 of last year would not be accessible. Now days later, the archives are still unavailable, leaving many to wonder when the service might be fully restored or if they have permanently lost their archived data. Instapaper has said that it’s working feverishly to get the data back and reassured users that none of the archived articles were lost. Still, the outage shines a bright light on cloud storage, proper database scaling and how applications interact with these databases.

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A Hosted Cloud Database Is Critical to Instapaper's Service

Instapaper is cloud service lets users gather Web content their interested in and save it to the app for future access. The services enables users to get easy access to interesting reading when they are offline. However, Instapaper uses a third-party-hosted cloud database to enable users to retrieve the articles they want to read. But serious problems with the database brought the service down.

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The Database Hit Its 'System Limit'

In a blog post, Instapaper said that the service went down after it hit its “system limit” in its hosted database. The company said that it spent “hours” working with its cloud provider, which wasn’t identified. The database limit couldn’t be increased easily, leaving Instapaper and its cloud provider to seek other options.

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Instapaper Sets Up a New Database

Ultimately, Instapaper decided that it needed a new database. The company said that it would export all of the data from its old database and import it into a new one that will have a higher limit than its predecessor.

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Instapaper Says No Data Was Lost

Instapaper was clear in its statement that no data was lost. Unlike countless other companies that have been hacked and had their data stolen or destroyed, Instapaper simply ran into a glitch. The database was not corrupted and all archived content was saved. It’ll return – eventually, the company says.

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A Rare Downtime Problem

Instapaper is surprisingly reliable. The cloud service had an uptime of 99.3 percent in 2016, and a chunk of that 0.7 percent of downtime was due to routine maintenance. So, while this is embarrassing for Instapaper, it’s an anomaly.

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A Temporary Fix Brings the Service Back Online

In an effort to get Instapaper back online, the company on Feb. 9 announced, after 31 hours of downtime, that users could once again access its service. Users could save new content and access older content tied to their accounts. However, access to its archives is “limited” and only content saved after Dec. 20 was made available. Instapaper has said it hopes to get all the archives back to users by Feb. 17.

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Why It Took So Long to Restore Service

In a statement to eWEEK, Michelle McLean, vice president of marketing at ScaleArc, a database uptime company, said that getting a database back up and running with all the archived content “is hard and not quick.” McLean added that restoring lost archived data is made more difficult because of poor preparation for future growth.

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Lack Of Capacity Made the Database Unstable

In a statement to eWEEK, McLean asks whether Instapaper’s “data tier was already fragile.” McLean noted that downtime during big surges in use can be “common,” but not so common on a “random day.” McLean believes that the database was already unstable well before the outage. Adding more capacity proactively could have allowed Instapaper to avoid the outage.

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Designed Cloud Applications Can Be Challenging

The cloud’s ability to scale with an application makes it so appealing. However, engineers acknowledge that designing an application to communicate with a cloud database can be difficult. It can be even harder when there are several database instances. Instapaper is dealing with that now.

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Cloud Companies Must Scale Up for Future Growth

According to McLean, the only way for growing companies to capitalize on the cloud while maintaining uptime is to “increase scale.” More specifically, McLean believes that data scaling in the cloud should have been done “much earlier” by Instapaper to avoid such a long downtime. Scaling, McLean argues, is the secret to staying online.

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