What Microsoft's online outage says about its cloud strategy

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.
Written by Ed Bott, Senior Contributing Editor

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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