Thursday, February 26, 2009

The perfect Google

There is outrage across the Net that Google had an outage to their Gmail service; they were down for 2-1/2 hours on Tuesday. It's their sixth outage in the last 8 months, and represents downtime of "about 10 to 15 minutes a month" over the last year. (At the higher estimate, this constitutes 99.97% uptime.)

Apparently some of the contracts Google has with corporate customers call for 99.9% uptime, but it's per month, so they will be providing credits for this month's outage. This last problem came from some new software that caused "cascading problems" from one data center to another.

Of course, the drama here comes from expectations that Google, this great monolith of the Web, should do nothing wrong, never disappoint a customer. We naturally expect a level of quality from this highly-publicized company that we would never expect from a normal service provider.

But let's look at this without the sense of awe that surrounds this successful company. Google's main business, that which has given us a new English verb, is search. We assume that their search is perfect because it's so vast in its results (and its mindshare).

We're comparing, however, apples and oranges. Google search is not required to hit 100%; we simply have no idea what results we're missing, because they're not there. Try putting the same query terms into a number of search engines, and you'll get a widely varying number of hits. And Google does not always have the biggest number. These companies are using different algorithms, different caching strategies, different indexing, so they're going to come up with different results.

Hosting web mail is quite different. It's not just a matter of having a strategy that's superior (though I quite like Gmail), or better software, it requires keeping the machines and attendant software up 24/7. This skill set is different from writing cool search or app software, and we shouldn't evaluate a company's ability to do one by how well they do the other.

If you have a business that's dependent on 100% e-mail uptime (a problematic strategy, if you ask me), then you need to get away from the thinking that the great Google will ensure that for you because, "they're so great." They may have really neat mail and feed readers and maps, but that has little to do with keeping server software humming.

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