Google outage lesson: Don't get stuck in a cloud

The #googlefail, while annoying, gives us a moment to pause and think about the wisdom of cloud-based computing

Google has apologized for yesterday's service outage that left 14 percent of its user base without Google's wide variety of online services for a few hours. Google said in a blog post the outage came down to a simple traffic jam at an Asian data center. The search giant described the situation by using the analogy of a large number of airplanes being rerouted through one airport that was not equipped for a massive influx of traffic. But in Google's case, it wasn't airplanes looking for a place to land; it was cloud-based data trying to stay up in the sky.

The confusion surrounding the issue was evident on Twitter where users quickly used the #googlefail hashtag to get the word out and scream bloody murder. One Tweep, named Leigh said, "the Internet dies without Google." She complained that she couldn't access her bank account online, because the bank needed Google Analytics -- Mountain View's web traffic analysis utility -- to work. "This is made of lame," Leigh said.

The day the Gcloud fell

But is Google that important to today's Internet? Well, a quick look at this graph from the Web security company Arbor Networks shows a canyon-sized hole in North American Internet traffic during the G-outage. With a wide variety of practical services like Gmail, Google Docs, Maps, Calendar, and even Google search gone, online activities came to a standstill for many people during the Google blackout. On the National Business Review's New Zealand site a reader named Karen complained of losing important business appointments in Google Calendar while other entries were duplicated and even tripled, creating a confusing mess. Let's hope Karen was able to sort it all out.

Ultimately, the outage was a fixable error and the Internet didn't come crashing down because of it. However, the #googlefail, while annoying, gives us a moment to pause and think about the wisdom of cloud-based computing. Just how smart is it to depend on a company to store all your data online?

On the one hand, online storage is incredibly convenient.   By offloading photos, videos, calendars and documents to someone else's hard drive, you free up storage space at home. There is also the added convenience of being able to access your data anywhere whether you're on the road, in a meeting or stuck on the tarmac waiting for take-off. And with portable 3G devices like the MiFi coming out, the need for the cloud will only increase.

But it's not all rainbows and light when you dance in the clouds, because eventually a storm rolls in. In an article published today entitled, "Will Your Data Disappear When Your Online Storage Site Shuts Down?" PC World's Tom Spring reports on the many recently shuttered data storage services from big companies like AOL, HP, and Sony. Some smaller storage companies have even gone under without giving users a chance to collect their precious bits and bytes. Canadian photographer Ryan Pyle told Spring how he lost more than 7000 edited and retouched images after the storage company Digital Railroad abruptly shut its doors last year.

Granted, Google is a much bigger company than Digital Railroad and it's unlikely that a service like Google Docs or Picasa would disappear forever with little or no warning. But yesterday's headache shows that Google is not immune to major problems and glitches that can cost you time and effort. And that fact alone should inspire all you Gmail and Google Docs users out there to think about clearing your hard drive of old movies and Heroes episodes, and pulling copies of your more essential data out of the clouds and back onto solid ground. Just don't forget to back up.

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Ian Paul

PC World (US online)
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