Google gets an F for planned weekday disruption to Google Calendar

Update: Since originally publishing this post, Google has issued a statement that it is both cancelling its planned weekday disruption to Google Calendar and, as a matter of policy, will be conducting such maintenance during off-peak hours in the future. See my update for Google's official statement.

Update: Since originally publishing this post, Google has issued a statement that it is both cancelling its planned weekday disruption to Google Calendar and, as a matter of policy, will be conducting such maintenance during off-peak hours in the future. See my update for Google's official statement.

Here at CNET Networks (ZDNet's parent company) and at every other company I've worked at, it it's the IT department's responsibility (in some cases, that meant me) to warn users of upcoming disruptions to their network bound IT services.  E-Mail. Shared file and print. Mainframe and/or Internet access. You get the idea.

Yesterday, Google e-mailed not one, but two "Google Apps Status Alerts" to users of the business version of Google Apps (a.k.a. Google Office: a special domain-specific context of Google's browser-based applications that normal Google users aren't exposed to) that users may encounter Google Calendar outages on Thursday, April 25 26. According to the first e-mail:

We wanted to inform you that we are planning to conduct routine maintenance to Google Calendar between 8AM and 9PM on Thursday, April 26th, 2007. During this time, this service may be unavailable to some of your users. Please inform your users about this planned maintenance appropriately. We apologize for the inconvenience and appreciate your patience as we work to improve Google Calendar.

But Google apparently felt it had done a less than adequate job of explaining itself in the first e-mail, and subsequently sent out a second one:

Earlier an email was sent regarding your Google Apps account, notifying you that we are planning to conduct routine maintenance to Google Calendar between 8AM and 9PM PDT on Thursday, April 26th, 2007 (3PM GMT on April 26th to 4AM GMT on April 27th). We understand that maintaining the highest level of reliability and uptime is critical to your organization and to your end users. Thus, we want to provide you with additional information about the upgrade and explain in detail the impact it may have on your users -- specifically, that only a subset of your users will be affected, and only for a few minutes each.

Why are we doing an upgrade?

We are updating some of our servers as we continue to improve Google Calendar. This is a normal maintenance update, and as with all updates we look to minimize the impact to our end users.

How will this impact my end users?
The impact to your users should be minimal. Only a subset of your users should be affected by the upgrade. These users may have trouble accessing their Google Calendars for a short period of time, generally less than 5-10 minutes each.

Will Google Calendar be down from 8AM to 9PM PDT?
No. This is the window of time that the maintenance upgrade will take place. During this time some users will experience issues accessing their calendar, but only for a short period of time each. As always, we continuously look to improve our communication with our administrators. If you have any feedback....

In sending out this alert and planning disruptions to Google Calendar, Google made some mistakes. But first, kudos go to Google for not only over-communicating, but listening and responding quickly to its customers.

A quick review of one of Google's online discussion groups for Google Apps reveals that Google erred in leaving timezone information out of its first message, thereby making it difficult to "inform users about this planned maintenance appropriately." Whereas the first e-mail clearly omits timezone information, the second one includes it. The second e-mail also offers more clarity regarding the sorts of disruptions that users can expect. It also attempts to explain why the disruption is necessary. Had this been all there was to this episode of Google Office's growing pains (and Google's in general), I'd probably give Google a B- for its overall performance as it relates to this issue.

But as responsive and as over-communicative as Google has been so far, Google is making a critical mistake in terms of planning non-critical disruptions for a weekday (a problem that didn't escape scrutiny in Google's discussion threads). Wrote one Google Apps administrator:

Why isn't the downtime scheduled for a weekend. As a small scale application provider, I am required by my customers to schedule downtime only on the weekend - as do most other application providers. I am VERY surprised and disappointed that downtime has been scheduled on a weekday especially considering that the update was not said to be critical.

So am I (surprised). What on Earth is Google thinking? Is there more to this outage than meets the eye? Is it more critical than Google is alluding to? Is the staff unable to make it to the offices this coming weekend? What gives? The West Coast isn't awake yet as I write this, so I can't get the answer.

In issuing the second e-mail, Google -- as the outsourced IT department for all of its Google Apps customers -- is clearly going through a learning period that the IT profession went through close to three decades ago. If Google wants to be the IT department for thousands or millions of organizations out there, then it would serve Google well to bring in a seasoned IT director who knows exactly how to service end-users (technically and psychologically) in a global environment so that it gets the first e-mail right and doesn't get the scheduling wrong. That same IT director would have rightfully killed the idea of a weekday disruption to a service that's mission critical to its customers (as a side note,, another hosted solution provider, invariably schedules its non-critical outages for the weekends -- smart thinking).

For most users, calendaring is critical. This is even more the case with Google since most Google users are not using an offline tool to view their calendar. In other words, when Google Calendar is down, there's no alternative way to access their appointment data. 

In response to my coverage of Google's business version of Google Apps (see Google gradually assembling Office secret weapons), the number one complaint about using Google's Apps is this so-called "offline problem." Compared to solutions that sit on your hard drive -- ones that can function with or without network connectivity -- Google naysayers claim that if the service or the network goes down, so does your business. There is no doubt in my mind that Google will solve the offline problem and solve it soon. How? We can't be sure. But in the mean time, the company must pull out as many stops as possible to mitigate the impact of the offline problem. Instead, by planning a Thursday outage, Google is not only drawing attention to the offline problem, but proving to both its current and potential customers that it doesn't understand the basic rules of being someone else's IT department. Some secret weapon. In this case, Google is using the weapon against itself.

As such, what could have been a small victory for Google's hosted applications is instead a black-eye which is why I'm giving the company an F grade on its performance in this situation. And while we're on the issue and if Google is paying attention, I have two other important suggestions for the company. First, when I last logged into my administrative panel for Google Apps (called "the Google Apps Dashboard"), there was no evidence of this upcoming outage. The Dashboard is the perfect place to post some text in big red type that warns of the upcoming disruption since a lot of Google Apps administrators will be looking at it at some point before the disruption takes place tomorrow (Update: Google manages to promote the idea of upgrading to the "Premier" edition of Google Apps in the Dashboard, so why not use it for alerts too?).

Second, the company's e-mail suggests that administrators let their users know of the upcoming outtage. As an administrator what am I supposed to do? Take time out of my busy day to write another e-mail? Instead, what Google should do is not only provide some boilerplate text that administrators can forward to their users, it should also make it dirt simple (and optional) to distribute that text with the click of a button. Administrators should also be able to add the planned outtage time as an "appointment" item directly to their users' Google calendars. Google must realize that with Google Apps, it's going to be in the business of making the lives of business managers a lot easier. As such, it needs to deliver and deliver well on time-savers like this which is why I've added them to my growing To-Do list for the people at Google who oversee Google Apps.