Will Gmail outage give Google and SaaS a black eye?

In the battle to get enterprise customers to switch to Gmail and the Google Apps software suite, Google has to meet higher expectations than existing business software vendors.

While that might be unfair, it’s their cross to bear for being such a powerhouse on the consumer Web and for all the high-profile media coverage the company receives.

Gmail has experienced outages that lasted for an inexplicably long time. 

For instance, last week a Gmail outage that lasted about 30 hours and affected some Google Apps customers was finally fixed late on Thursday – when  around 9:30 p.m. Eastern Time a Google spokesman said via e-mail that the problem had been solved.

He offered no details about its cause, nor an explanation about why it took Google so long to fix it. The spokesman said the problem affected “a small number” of Gmail users, but declined to be more specific.

(The first problem reports started appearing in the official Google Apps discussion forum around mid-afternoon Wednesday. At around 5 p.m. that day, Google acknowledged  the company was aware of a problem preventing Gmail users from logging into their accounts and that it expected a solution by 9 p.m. on Thursday).

In affected companies, Apps administrators told of very tense situations, in some cases involving having to deal with extremely upset CEOs and other high ranking executives who got locked out of their e-mail.

Google Apps is a suite of hosted collaboration and communication software and services designed for workplace use. Its Standard and Education versions are free. Its more sophisticated Premier edition costs around $50 per user per year and includes a 99.9 percent uptime guarantee for the Gmail service.

In August, Gmail had three significant outages that affected not only individual consumers of the free Webmail service but also paying Google Apps Premier customers.

As a result, Google decided to extend a credit to all Apps Premier customers and said it would do better at notifying users of problems.

One outage, on Aug. 11, lasted about two hours but affected almost all Apps Premier users. The other two, on Aug. 6 and Aug. 15, hit a small number of Apps Premier users, but both outages were lengthy, affecting some users for more than 24 hours. In all of the incidents, users were unable to access their Gmail accounts.

Like other SaaS (software-as-a-service) Web-hosted office collaboration and communications suites, Apps is an alternative to applications that are run on customers’ own hardware and managed by their IT staffs.

SaaS suites – such as Google Apps – are generally much cheaper, require little or no maintenance by IT departments and are designed for Web-based workgroup collaboration.

However, customers must understand that they are trading off a level of control. If the vendor experiences problems in its data centre, the performance and availability of the applications will be affected.

In those cases, IT and business administrators must simply wait for the vendor to solve its problems.

Microsoft and other enterprise vendors will seize on the latest incident as yet another example that going to a full cloud computing model – where most of your key messaging infrastructure is stored offsite – has its risks, and therefore you should continue to pay to keep core applications on-premise.

Or, at the very least, they’ll say if you’re ready to move to a software as a service (SaaS) model, you should do it with “trusted” vendor and not some consumer oriented company like Google.

Some corporate IT departments will take the bait.

But others might know better. As messaging expert Michael Osterman told CIO back in August after another Gmail outage, “I think it should be expected. E-mail outages are not uncommon, regardless if the infrastructure is on-premise or hosted.

The Google Mail outages are given more attention, and it will give SaaS a black eye. But if you look at Google’s records, Gmail is still well over 99 percent available.”

In other words, when a company’s e-mail goes down and it’s hosted on Exchange or Domino, we don’t hear about it because no body really cares unless customers of that company or people trying to do business with them get wind of it (and then tell the press or blog about it).

In this case, the customers of the software (rightly) screamed about it on Google discussion forums, the media picked it up, and we have a story.

But does this really turn you off the idea of SaaS? Or, more specifically, the notion of having e-mail accounts that are actually searchable and offer amounts of storage per user (10GB) unheard of in typical enterprise deployments?

As the economy tightens and Google turns its attention to its core business (search), the burden for the enterprise software division at Google will remain high. Their standards for maintaining perfect uptime with customers, and a strong reputation with the media, will be even greater.

They need to do it (way) better than the other guy. They need to business customers to believe they are doing so, too.

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