Skype outage brings home importance of having a backup

As more than 220 million Skype users let out a collective sigh of relief when the service came back from the dead, communication experts couldn’t help but hammer on the importance of having a Plan B.

The two-day disruption, which began last Thursday, was triggered by a massive restart of users’ computers across the globe. An overwhelming group of people re-booted their machines within a short time frame after receiving routine patches through Windows Update, Skype said.

“This caused a flood of log-in requests, which, combined with the lack of peer-to-peer network resources, prompted a chain reaction that had a critical impact,” said Skype’s Villu Arak in the company’s blog.

Normally, the company’s network has a built-in ability to self-heal, but a “previously unseen software bug” within the resource allocation algorithm prevented this capability, he said.

The issue was “explicity within Skype;” no hacking was detected and users’ security was not at risk, Arak added.

But communications specialists and analysts said the incident pointed to weaknesses of Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) systems and the need for more business disruption planning on the part of service providers and users.

The telecom and IT industries periodically go through some patch distribution from time to time, according to Jayanth Angl, research analyst for Info-Tech Research Group Ltd. of London, Ont.

“If the patches are going to affect the operation, providers must have some strategy to minimize or prevent the impact,” he said.

Skype is used by private users and SMBs for such services as instant messaging, VoIP, video conferencing and file transfers.

“It’s full-featured, inexpensive and easy to use but remember-there are no guarantees on reliability,” he said.

Depending on their manner of operations, businesses might find it worthwhile to invest different types of VoIP services.

Roberta Fox, principal of Fox Group, a telecommunications consultancy firm based in Mount Albert, Ont., said her company is currently using seven types of VoIP technologies from six different companies.

The company uses Skype for communications with fellow consultants working out of the British Virgin Islands, Muskoka and North York, Ont., locations.

Fox also resorts to MSN when contacting family members particularly her young nieces and nephews.

The firm uses five other set-ups that include: VoIP on DSL for incoming and outgoing calls to Toronto; premises-based VoIP that enables relocation of phones and PCs on demand; carrier-hosted service for voice dedicated projects; an external public Internet connections for VoIP with hand phones for the business team’s four-digit dialing needs; and public Internet connections for VoIP with soft phones for consultants working at client sites.

VoIP networks are inherently unstable. While time division multiplexing (TDM) systems have an average 12 to 30 seconds of downtime each year, VoIP has an annual downtime average of nine to 11 hours, Fox said.

Fox noted that there are some offshore international call centres using Skype that support North American firms. “If these centres do not have a DRP (disaster recovery plan) incorporating a backup communication line, the two day disruption would be an operations and public relations disaster.”

In some countries, getting an emergency analogue business line hooked up to take up the slack can take upwards of five days, she said.

Free VoIP services similar to Skype, are not ideal for business application, according to Ashok Kalle, president of Pathway Communications, a Markham, Ont.-based Internet service provider.

“Skype might be good for casual and home-based users, but it does not offer the guarantees and redundancy required by business,” he said.

For instance, he said, the fully hosted VoIP service that Pathway offers immediately transfers a call to client’s alternative number should one connection fail.

Other VoIP services in the market include:

Raketu – Free calls from landlines to mobile phones in 42 countries, enables live stream television and allows users to chat with friends about what they are watching. A US$9.95 deposit is required to establish an account

VoipCheap – Allows users to make free calls to regular phone lines. A weekly limit of 300 hours per IP address is imposed and fees are collected for paid locations. Software is available for free download

Gizmo – User friendly,offers free landline, soft phone and mobile calls to other Gizmo users although some fees apply

Yahoo! Voice – Free PC-to-PC calls to other Yahoo! Voice members

Windows Live Messenger – Free PC-to-PC calls between members. Low rate charged for calling a landline but this arrangement limits call to only five minutes

WengoPhone – Allows free PC-to-PC calls regardless of other party’s provider but interface is said to be “crude” compared to Skype

Level3 – Enables business to handle toll-free calls through VoIP. A free service ideal for conference calls and call centre operations

Google Talk –  Free PC-to-PC call service for members. Offers polished and user-friendly interface that also enables BlackBerry connections

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