If you trade in dependency, you have to earn trust

Yahoo's Cyber Monday blackout is just the latest in a lengthy catalog of 'bad news' stories about on-demand applications and services. Is the entire online model for applications fatally flawed?

For a while now, I've been keeping track of what I've been calling 'bad news' stories about on-demand applications and services. Yahoo's Cyber Monday blackout is just the latest in what has become a lengthy catalog:

  • Yesterday, Yahoo! Small Business: "Yahoo's small business merchant systems go down during the peak Cyber Monday shopping season for much of the day." (ZDNet's Larry Dignan)
  • Last week, Skype: "Internet telephony firm Skype could have kept the London numbers it stripped from customers this week for only a modest fee ... Business customers were given just a month's notice, leaving many with thousands of pounds worth of printed advertising and stationery that was now effectively useless." (PC Pro)
  • Two weeks ago, TinyURL: "TinyURL is apparently down for the count right now. Whether you're trying to compress a URL into a tiny one (via TinyURL.com) or attempting to visit a TinyURL-based URL that was created and distributed to you by someone else (for example, one of the TinyURLs that appears in my Twitter feed on the right of this page), visits to TinyURL.com are returning '500 - Internal Server Error'." (ZDNet's David Berlind)

Google and Microsoft have had their share of on-demand mishaps, too.

  • Ongoing, Gmail: "A small but steady stream of Gmail users ... regularly report losing some, many, or all of their messages without a clue as to why. It seems that hardly a week goes by without at least several users reporting this problem on discussion boards, such as the official Gmail Help forum." (IDG/InfoWorld)
  • Earlier this month, Windows Live Foldershare: "... it’s been dead for days, which is really bad, as it has become a key part of my infrastructure: I sync three computers using Foldershare, and run Mozy to create online backups on one." (Zoli's Blog)
  • Last month, Google FeedBurner: "Went to check my FeedBurner account, only to be informed I'm missing a 'spoon' ... Note to error-page authors at Enterprise 2.0 companies: the fact your application is down and interrupting your users' work is neither funny nor cute." (ZDnet's Michael Krigsman)
  • In August, Windows Genuine Advantage: "The server that verified users went down and began to disable ... the operating systems of computers that checked into the home base to affirm their legitimacy. The WGA server outage hit on Friday evening, Aug. 24, and was finally repaired on the next day. It was down for 19 long hours." (John Dvorak)
  • And throughout, a series of calamities at hosting providers: 365 Main, Navisite, Rackspace and Jatol.com, which apparently ceased trading without warning.

After amassing all this evidence — and the list is incomplete, there have been other examples that I didn't make a note of — should we conclude, along with Jon Dvorak, that the entire online model for applications is fatally flawed? Or at least perhaps we should agree with Michael Krigsman that, "SaaS may be here, but it’s not ready for mission-critical applications."

Personally, I draw quite different conclusions than these. I think the frequency of these stories over the past couple of months underlines that the on-demand model of consuming applications and services from Web-based providers has now become so prevalent that it's simply an accepted mode of behavior for mainstream computer users, whether for work or for leisure, for business or for personal consumption.

Lots of people do this now, in a huge variety of purposes and contexts, and thus the number of operational instances is expanding rapidly. When one of them fails, it's still a newsworthy exception. Most of the time, they stay running, and everyone takes that continuous service for granted, even though it's actually a lot more reliable and predictable than the computing operations that run in their own homes and offices.

Having said that, too many of these stories demonstrate that providers don't fully appreciate the nature of the relationship they've entered into. Their clients depend on them, quite literally, and that creates strenuous obligations on the part of the provider, including:

  • Stating clearly in advance what service levels clients can expect
  • Providing mechanisms for clients to monitor service levels
  • Keeping clients informed when things go wrong
  • Minimizing risks of failure at times of high demand or vulnerability
  • Maintaining established service levels throughout the contracted life of a service
  • Providing enough notice to allow clients to change provider before implementing any reduction in service levels
  • Giving clients direct access to their assets if the provider goes out of business

Banks learnt all of this long ago. Their industry has taken steps to make sure depositors are protected even after a bank goes bust. That is a price they are willing to pay because they understand (and have learnt from bitter experience over the past two hundred years) that it is the price of trust. On-demand application providers are in exactly the same kind of relationship; their clients depend on them for everyday functions and operations, and therefore trust is paramount. Get it wrong, even for a few hours, and unless you put it right and show your commitment to earning and retaining client trust, it's gone for ever.

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