What's your small-business email contingency plan?

What's your small-business email contingency plan?

Summary: Apple's lengthy iCloud email outage, which affected 2 million to 3 million people, offers a vivid reminder of why you need a plan B when it comes to electronic communications.


This week, I had a taste of what it feels like to be part of the famous 1 percent: I was one of 1.1 percent of iCloud service customers who was without email for at least 36 hours.

We here at ZDNet debated how to cover this issue because, after all, it happened right smack dab in the middle of the all the sexy iPhone 5 coverage. Plus, it "only" affected about 2 million to 3 million people, many of them individuals.

But since I was one of those people, I felt I needed to weigh in, especially since I just received what is probably one of the world's lamest apologies for my disruption.

Here's the complete text of the email I literally just received moments ago:

"We apologize for the mail service interruption you recently experienced. Your mail service has been restored and all emails sent during this service interruption have been delivered to your account. Our customers are very important to us, and we are working hard to ensure you have the best experience with iCloud. We appreciate your patience."

Not exactly the sort of email that makes one feel all warm and fuzzy about the iCloud service team or about Apple's long-term cloud applications and services strategy. 

I know that many of ZDNet's traditional readers are in enterprise IT and really couldn't care less about iCloud, but it definitely is a force within the small-business community, many of which are free to invest in whatever technology they want.

I am sure there were thousands of designers, boutiques, and other small merchants inconvenienced (at the very least) by the apparently random problem -- especially if it was out for two full business days, as was the case with mine.

I was pleasantly surprised that my other cloud services weren't affected, including my access to my contact database and my personal calendar. 

Let's be clear, I actually PAY for iCloud. So this isn't a case of getting what you pay for by using a potentially unreliable free email service.

There's a lesson there: although investing in cloud applications that are tightly integrated makes things simple, you need to make sure you understand the potential consequences should one piece of the service be booted offline for some reason. How interdependent are those services? If one goes down, will it take the others with it? (Companies like Zoho and Google are acutely aware of this.)

I was also fortunate to have a separate email account I was able to use as a means of communicating, even though I typically keep my personal and professional email separate.

If you are a small-business owner, having a good Plan B for email access, should your primary account go dark, is definitely a good deal -- especially as the loads being carried by main of the email service providers traditionally used by this community -- such as Hotmail, AOL and Gmail -- carry increasingly heavy loads.

That is, unless you can afford apparently random email outages that last for hours. I'm guessing that isn't really an option.

It's ironic that my personal alternative, which runs through a domain with GoDaddy, was also the subject of a service outage this week, albeit it a much shorter one. In this case, the explanation was much more detailed (probably because it affected far more people). Here's that GoDaddy's CEO Scott Wagner had to say in the company's statement: 

"Yesterday, GoDaddy.com and many of our customers experienced intermittent service outages starting shortly after 10 a.m. PDT. Service was fully restored by 4 p.m. PDT.

The service outage was not caused by external influences. It was not a "hack" and it was not a denial of service attack (DDoS). We have determined the service outage was due to a series of internal network events that corrupted router data tables. Once the issues were identified, we took corrective actions to restore services for our customers and GoDaddy.com. We have implemented measures to prevent this from occurring again.

At no time was any customer data at risk or were any of our systems compromised.

Throughout our history, we have provided 99.999% uptime in our DNS infrastructure. This is the level our customers expect from us and the level we expect of ourselves. We have let our customers down and we know it.

We take our business and our customers' businesses very seriously. We apologize to our customers for these events and thank them for their patience."

Some reports suggest that GoDaddy is even offering some customers a credit for their troubles, although I haven't received that email myself.

Mind you, GoDaddy has its own customer service issues, but this is a far more reasonable response to its outage than Apple's almost snippy comment. 

The lesson? Choose your email service provider -- and the one that will be your contingency plan -- wisely. Apple's handling of this definitely has me reconsidering my own alternatives.

Topics: SMBs, Cloud

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  • Cloud Services

    Unfortunately there is constant abuse of the cloud terminology, with every man and his dog claiming they have cloud capability. In reality there are very few companies who can truly boast such capacity, Amazon of course and Microsoft being two. I would be surprised indeed if Apple had a sufficiently large distributed network to lay claim to this title.
    Steve P Smith
    • Are you serious?

      Apple run one of the largest platforms of "cloud" services, their networks and data centres are massive. They would be one of the top 3 or 4 companies in the world for scale in this way - only the likes of Google and Microsoft would be rivals.

      Where do you think all the content for iTunes lives, or all the streaming content for all the Apple TV devices etc comes from?
      Andrew C MacDonald

    Business class email is a challenge for many reasons, there's certainly room for improvement!

    The free email providers do not provide a service level agreement (sla), since there's no penalty users can levy, besides leaving.

    So the incentive is often relatively low to maintain, and in cases of failure, restore service. Enterprise email providers, and departments, use the concept of Restore Time and Restore Point Objectives to somewhat more accurately deliver estimates for the time it will take, in practice, to restore service after a failure, and how much data loss may be sustained in the event of catastrophe. Of course, their SLAs are also usually more rigorous, promising 99.9%, and sometimes even greater up-time or availability.

    When it comes to the "Cloud," larger providers who are sometimes closer to true cloud service providers in the most technical sense, seem to have difficulty recovering quickly from failures. And small providers sometimes market what's no more than hosting as Cloud.

    Specialists, we can deliver 99.95% availability for email and collaboration, all our customers' data is replicated between two distant U.S. data centers every few minutes, we deliver 100 days of backup/undelete standard for most clients. But of course we can't deliver the service free of charge. Then again, if it's costing you thousands of dollars, or more to be without email during an outage, and you have no continuity plan or transparency into your service provider, it may be worth $60/year/mailbox, and considering a new, more personalized, enterprise email provider.
    Gray Rothkopf
  • ISP-supplied inbox

    I would recommend that you set up and maintain the email service that your ISP has available for you with their Internet service; as well as your GMail / Hotmail and / or Web-host's email service. Here, I would have email functions that are part of your Website or other business service be delivered to your backup email address as well as your primary email address. At least one or two of these addresses should have client access (POP3/SMTP, IMAP or Microsoft Exchange) as well as Webmail access so there are ways of gaining access to the email from any client device that you have set up.
  • A Backup

    ThreadThat dot com may save you in cases where you email service fails. All communications are stored encrypted on our server. You can use you phone as a notification mechanism. Then just log into TT and exchange encrypted messages and files instantly. No email service, no problem.
    • A Backup

      your, not you. Need to re-read before clicking submit!