Will You Forgive Google's Failure?

Nobody's perfect. I can live with that fact -- but can you? And how about your IT director and CTO?

The world is collapsing!
Yesterday, mighty Google (Nasdaq: GOOG  ) showed off its imperfections to the world. Google's popular Gmail service suffered 100 minutes of flaky or nonexistent service, a too-long moment of silence for many of Gmail's 37 million users.

Within moments, Twitter and the blogosphere were ablaze with vitriol and forlorn sighs. Google's techies got on the ball quickly, but it was too late to stop that firestorm of bad PR. Many an impatient victim of the outage seized the moment to swear off Gmail entirely in public channels of communication like Twitter and Facebook, going back to competing Web-based mail services from Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT  ) and Yahoo! (Nasdaq: YHOO  ) . "Hotmail, here I come!" was one popular slogan; "Yahoo! Mail is never down" was another.

And who can blame them? Wasn't Gmail supposed to be available all day, every day -- running on a massive network of redundant servers? Paying customers get a 99.9% uptime guarantee, and this outage amounted to about 0.225% of September as of Day 1. Google obviously has some service credits to dole out. And this is the third sizable Gmail disruption in the last year!

But those hair-trigger critics forgot to do their homework. Yahoo! Mail users have suffered from at least two major outages in the last three years -- a better record than Google's, to be sure, but still not perfect. And Hotmail is doing no better than Gmail. Stuff happens to everybody.

What's the problem?
As it turns out, the problem this time arose from a combination of underpowered network routers, some strange networking policies that forced the outage to cascade from one router to the next, and doing routine maintenance during working hours when Gmail traffic is high to begin with. Ironically, the maintenance work was supposed to make Gmail more reliable. While the main Web-based interface was down, users could still read and send mail from the iGoogle mail gadget, or by hooking up an external mail reading program like Mozilla Thunderbird or Microsoft's Outlook through the industry-standard IMAP or POP email protocols.

Google is notoriously tight-lipped about the hardware it uses, but if you wanted to invest in Big G throwing more hardware at the problem, you'd be better off looking at networking vendors like Cisco Systems (Nasdaq: CSCO  ) or Juniper Networks (Nasdaq: JNPR  ) than server specialists such as Dell (Nasdaq: DELL  ) or Hewlett-Packard (NYSE: HPQ  ) . And even then, Google probably will throw in a couple of extra network routers -- but adjusting the wrong-footed network policies should stave off this particular problem quite effectively. The extra router orders shouldn't amount to much.

Oh, and maybe Google will adopt sensible maintenance hours rather than doing upgrades during peak demand times. All of these things need to happen if Google is serious about attracting a large number of corporate customers who pay for Gmail and other Google applications.

I forgive you, honey. Just don't do it again!
But again, bad stuff happens even to great people and businesses. All five of my active mail accounts, including the Fool.com address you'll see in the disclaimer below, get forwarded to my Gmail account, so I suffered along with everyone else for nearly two hours. If this nonsense were to happen on a daily basis, I might have to rethink my email habits. That's not the case, though.

A couple of hours of email silence once in a blue moon is inconvenient, especially when your work depends on email and the outage happens at a busy time, like in the middle of a sunny Tuesday afternoon. But there are workarounds available, and Google will honor the cash-back service guarantees for all of those paying customers. The Gmail team even apologized for the inconvenience. When's the last time you saw an apology from your Internet service provider, and how perfect is that service?

I will survive. So will pretty much everybody else.

It's a setback for Google's efforts to replace Microsoft Office with free or cheap Web-based alternatives, and it might look like a Californian wildfire today -- but unless Google makes a bad habit out of these network problems, the whole incident will be forgiven in a couple of months. And if the attitudes toward Yahoo! and Hotmail are any indication, this will be forgotten entirely before too long.

Staying online is Google's top priority right now. What else do you wish Google could do better -- or at least differently? Let me know in the comments box below, or see if you can shoot down my Gmail access again with a flood of insightful emails. Go ahead, Fool -- I dare you.

Google is a Motley Fool Rule Breakers pick. Dell and Microsoft are Motley Fool Inside Value recommendations. Try any of our Foolish newsletters today, free for 30 days.

Fool contributor Anders Bylund owns shares in Google, but he holds no other position in any of the companies discussed here. He doesn't miss the dark days of doing weekly server maintenance at midnight every Saturday, but that's the level of dedication it takes to run a world-class network. Suck it up and get to work, Googlers! You can check out Anders' holdings or a concise bio if you like. The Motley Fool is investors writing for investors.


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Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On September 06, 2009, at 12:10 AM, breathless9 wrote:

    So Google goofed. It isn't alone. Today, I chatted with Verizon's help desk when I couldn't access the internet.

    When the techie's "help" failed to break the problem,I

    was told everything at their end was working fine; the

    problem was with my PC, then advised to take the problem to my vendor or repair person. About an hour later, I was able to get on the web, encountering Verizons home page which was apologizing for its technical difficulties. Either the help desk wasn't advised of Verizon's equipment problem or it was covering for its employer. Either way it was inexcusable. Progress to date, notwithstanding, computing is still relatively in the

    Model-T stage and certainly has a long way to go. Same is true for Google and Verizon.

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