What Microsoft's online outage says about its cloud strategy

What Microsoft's online outage says about its cloud strategy

Summary: Last week, Microsoft had four separate issues that knocked its cloud-based e-mail services offline for up to 9 hours. Those incidents highlight the most important thing to keep in mind when buying any cloud service.

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When I wrote last week about the dangers of Google’s cloud-only strategy, a handful of commenters criticized me for focusing on the failure of Google’s Blogger service and not mentioning Microsoft’s own cloud-related problems. One questioned why I should “waste time ripping on Google, when Microsoft (your apparent reason for blogging) gets a pass from you from their arguably more annoying outage.”

Talk about missing the point.

Yes, Microsoft’s outage last week was annoying and potentially costly to paying customers. If you’re a current or prospective customer of Microsoft’s Business Productivity Online Services (BPOS), you’ll want to look carefully at how the company handled last week’s outages and what their response says about the long-term reliability of BPOS.

The fact that an outage happened shouldn't be a surprise. In fact, it actually supports my argument against putting everything you own in the cloud.

Any network-based service can have an outage. Do you know any online service that offers a 100% uptime guarantee? Me neither.

But hard disks and file servers can fail, too, which is why I recommend a combination of local and cloud-based storage. As I wrote last week:

If your data matters, you need a hybrid strategy, with local storage and local content creation and editing tools. If your local storage fails, you can grab what you need from the cloud. If your cloud service fails, you've still got it locally. But if you rely just on the cloud, you’re vulnerable to exactly this sort of failure.

The troubles with BPOS were well covered here at ZDNet. Shortly after my post went live, our editor in chief, Larry Dignan, posted Microsoft BPOS uptime sparking customer angst, pleas for help. Mary Jo Foley followed that up with Microsoft's BPOS cloud customers hit by multi-day email outage a little later in the day. In a blog post at the end of the day, Microsoft Corporate VP Dave Thompson acknowledged that the Online Services division he runs had four separate service issues that affected its hosted Exchange service:

  • An outage on Tuesday resulted in e-mail backlogs and delays that lasted up to 9 hours for some customers.
  • Two more episodes on Friday lasted 45 minutes and 3 hours, respectively.
  • A separate DNS issue early Friday morning affected Outlook Web Access, with a lesser impact on Outlook and some Exchange ActiveSync devices. That episode lasted nearly four hours.

So what makes this outage different from, say, the more-than-30-hour outage that wiped out 40,000 Gmail accounts back in February?

Update: In the Talkback section, some commenters suggest that this is an unfair comparison. They mistakenly believe that the Google outage applied only to the free Gmail service. That is not true. The official Google incident report (PDF) makes clear that this issue affected paying customers in the Google Apps for Business program, who lost all access to their data for a period of at least 32 hours.

Google has no offline client. All of those Gmail customers eventually got their data restored, but for a day and a half, they were out of luck. They had no calendar details and no contacts except those that had been synced to a smartphone, and no e-mail messages except those they had manually configured for use with their own e-mail client using IMAP.

Microsoft, by contrast, has Outlook, which is designed to keep a fully synchronized offline copy of everything in your Exchange account. Exchange and Outlook are designed to work together, and in fact a copy of Outlook is part of the system requirements for both BPOS and Office 365. In its FAQ for Office 365, Microsoft notes that "Outlook 2007 and Outlook 2010 have been designed to work with cloud services and support the cloud services’ architecture."

BPOS customers last week had to use alternate accounts to send e-mail, but they didn’t lose access to calendars, contacts, and e-mail archives.

That is exactly what I’m talking about when I refer to a hybrid service. If I were a BPOS customer, I’m sure I would have been extremely unhappy last week. But I wouldn’t have been unproductive.

Ironically, the successor to BPOS, Office 365, is now in beta testing. It stayed online all week while BPOS was giving it customers an online roller-coaster ride. In my first look at Office 365, the first bullet point on my list of things that make it worth a long look is its "great online/offline support." That’s exactly the point I make here.

Microsoft does offer cloud-only online services of its online services. The BPOS deskless worker options and the equivalent Kiosk Worker plans for Office 365 both deliver web-only e-mail packages at a reduced price. But those packages are intended for workers who share a terminal and typically spend only 5-10% of their time at a PC. The Enterprise plan includes “full client connectivity.”

When it comes to the cloud, Microsoft says they’re “all in.” Thank goodness that’s just a slogan.

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Topics: Collaboration, CXO, Microsoft, Outage

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123 comments
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  • Excellent post

    I would also like to hear you explore the differences in the SLA. A google outage results in more time being added to the end of the contract. A microsoft outage results in remuneration. Another key differentiator in their approaches.
    Your Non Advocate
    • RE: What Microsoft's online outage says about its cloud strategy

      @facebook@...

      SLA is important, but at least somewhat irrelevant when your service is down. We recently had an Internet outage, and there's not much the ISP could have done to compensate us for the lost produtivity during the 2-3 business days involved. The business-class SLA didn't prevent the outage or their incompetence in fixing it, let alone our time and cost to put in a redundant connection from another provider.
      1DaveN
      • RE: What Microsoft's online outage says about its cloud strategy

        @DaveN_MVP

        What are the penalties that your carrier provides in the event of a downtime? I tend to deploy dual carriers for companies that require a high level of uptime. YMMV. However, it sounds like you did not align your continuity needs with your vendor SLAs. A central part of managing any vendor relationship is to ensure that your true business needs are clearly understood before commencing SLA requirements.
        Your Non Advocate
    • Microsoft offers a refund of $2.50 per user

      @facebook@... At $2.50 per user for a problem that persisted for a month, do you feel that companies were adequately compensated?

      I am surprised that more Microsoft Partners are not speaking up in this forum. Perhaps they are too busy trying to explain how an email issue could last so long and why they were powerless to do anything to fix it.
      MaranathaP
      • RE: What Microsoft's online outage says about its cloud strategy

        @MaranathaP

        http://microsoftvolumelicensing.com/DocumentSearch.aspx?Mode=3&DocumentTypeId=37

        A 100% credit is extremely compelling, as compared to additional days at the tail end of a controal.
        Your Non Advocate
  • RE: What Microsoft's online outage says about its cloud strategy

    I'm still amused at the notion that M$ came to market with a product acronym "BPOS".
    Non-techie Talk
    • Be consistent

      @Non-techie Talk

      If you're gonna trash-talk, then don't you need to spell it BPO$?

      ;)
      Ed Bott
      • RE: What Microsoft's online outage says about its cloud strategy

        @Ed Bott
        LOL. :D
        Ram U
      • By the way, talking about names: does not Office 365 name promises the ...

        @Ed Bott: ... <b>will be out for at least one day every four years?</b>

        Microsoft indeed has really lame naming habits; always had.
        DDERSSS
      • RE: What Microsoft's online outage says about its cloud strategy

        @Ed Bott Touche! I appreciate your having fun with this.
        Non-techie Talk
    • RE: What Microsoft's online outage says about its cloud strategy

      @Non-techie Talk They didn't... it was called Business Productivity Online Services when it was released.
      jessiethe3rd
    • Maybe it's part of their new ''truth in advertsing'' program?

      @Non-techie Talk
      JonathonDoe
      • RE: What Microsoft's online outage says about its cloud strategy

        @JonathonDoe -- Now that's hilarious!!!!!
        rpollard@...
      • RE: What Microsoft's online outage says about its cloud strategy

        @JonathonDoe LOL!
        Non-techie Talk
  • Good analysis

    It was delayed e-mails. E-mails weren't lost, deleted, etc. You still had access to all the online services. So it wasn't a total outage, but it was very frustrating. Given the fact I had just switched a client from a failing Exchange server over the weekend. Oh well, it's how online services go. That said, in the two years I've been supporting users on BPOS this is the first outage that lit up my phone. For the most part it's been incredibly reliable.

    I think they easily meet the uptime SLA overall but on a monthly basis, this month they fail. Good thing people still have IM, other e-mail, and phones.
    LiquidLearner
    • This went on for a month

      @LiquidLearner The meltdown might have occurred over a 2 day period, but there were ongoing mail flow issues for a month prior to this. Every ticket we opened received the following generic response: "Concerning Service Request xxxxxx-xxxxxx, the BPOS Operations team continues to monitor email flow in the environment. The team has resolved issues with users seeing email stuck in draft or outbox. Users with mail that was previously queued in their outbox may see delays of up to 3 hours for final delivery based on the significant amount of email that is queued. Microsoft is closely monitoring the situation and expects mail queues to reduce to normal levels in the next several hours."
      This was a month long problem for all of our clients in the US.
      MaranathaP
  • Missing the point indeed

    You have. You ignored the BPOS outage (a Microsoft issue), then ranted about Google's (not a Microsoft issue) and now you're defending BPOS's outage and saying it isn't as bad as Google's.

    You are apparently paid write a "Microsoft Report" blog. Who knew that Google were Microsoft?
    ego.sum.stig
    • Where did I say it wasn't as bad as Google's?

      @ego.sum.stig@...

      My focus is on the customer... You seem to be more interested in proving some sort of point.
      Ed Bott
      • Heres the language you use for Google problems

        @Ed Bott :
        "one of its flagship services has failed spectacularly."
        now look at the soft talk you use for BPOS issues...
        " Microsoft?s outage last week was annoying" then you give a sales pitch for the MS products.
        Thats why you were pulled up on trashing google..
        deaf_e_kate
      • RE: What Microsoft's online outage says about its cloud strategy

        @Ed Bott
        @ego.sum.stig

        I support e.s.s on this as you compared two completely different products. The Gmail downtime was for a free service, you should have considered the paid service for comparison, and yes I got the same feeling as others here that you prefer one more than the other...
        athlonica