Microsoft, Google suffer outages: Can you trust the Cloud?

There are benefits to using Cloud services, but the cost of those benefits may be too much if you can't rely on the Cloud

The Cloud is falling! The Cloud is falling! No, seriously. It keeps falling. If it's not Google Docs or Gmail, it's Microsoft's Office 365, Hotmail, and SkyDrive. The issues encountered over the past week or so -- and the sporadic-but-too-frequent-to-ignore outages before that -- raise serious questions about just how dependable Cloud-based services really are.

For consumers using Gmail, or Hotmail, or other free Cloud-based services -- it's free. You get what you pay for. That's not to say that Google and Microsoft shouldn't do what they can to ensure the service is available. But, if your email is offline for an hour or four it's probably not the end of the world. Just go tweet or Facebook message if you must, or -- better yet -- get up and walk away from your PC and go see what's on the other side of that door-like object.

If you are a business customer that relies on Google Apps or Office365, outages like this are more than just a minor annoyance. They can cut off productivity, and stop your business in its tracks. For some businesses it may not be a big deal, but many can't afford to have email and productivity apps offline. If your losses from cloud outages exceed your savings from using cloud services, the math is not working out in your favor.

Cloud service providers can -- and should -- do more to eliminate single points of failure and prevent outages. But, the fact of the matter is that they can't account for everything, so you need to have a Plan B, and maybe a Plan C.

If your business communications rely on Gmail, what do you do when Gmail is offline? If your data is stored on Microsoft's SkyDrive, or an Office365 SharePoint collection, how do you continue doing business when Microsoft's cloud crashes? Here are some options to consider:

1. Local software. If your cloud services are offline, you could try doing things the old-fashioned way with local software. Many businesses adopt services like Google Apps or Office365 specifically to avoid paying the license fees for software like the Microsoft Office suite. But, Office 365 offers an option to pay a higher monthly fee and get the Microsoft Office software in addition to the cloud-based services.

2. Local Data. Storing your data solely in the cloud is a precarious proposition with or without cloud outages. Even if you use a cloud-based solution for primary data storage, you should maintain a local backup copy of your data so you still have access even during an outage.

3. Fallback Plan. A cloud outage doesn't have to grind all productivity to a halt. Develop a Plan B and ensure that employees know what it is. If the business email is offline, you could resort to communicating using personal email addresses, or use Facebook messaging, or Skype instant messaging. There are plenty of options -- you just need to determine which to use and communicate it proactively so everyone is on the same page when the situation arises.

The bottom line answer to the question "can you trust the cloud?" is "no". You should expect that there will be cloud outages and instead ask the question "can I afford to rely on the cloud?", or "what is my backup plan when the cloud is unavailable?"

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Tony Bradley

PC World (US online)
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