Cloud services: Computus Interruptus

I use Google Docs as part of my day job. On one recent morning I accessed a file and updated it but when I went back a short time later I got a "502" error page -- something had gone amok in Google land. Everything seemed to work when I tried a few hours later, but the incident was a forceful reminder of one of the important features of cloud services -- when they go down so do you.

The message I got was less than helpful: "502. That's an error. The server encountered a temporary error and could not complete your request. Please try again in 30 seconds. That's all we know." It was a lot longer than 30 seconds before things worked again.

This was not a major outage for me and I had no trouble finding other things to do with my time, but I wonder what the impact was on the few million other people who also had to find things to do other than what they originally planned.

[ TIPS: Learn to fail and avoid the next cloud outage ]

Google Docs has been generally reliable, but its users have suffered some disruptions of service over the years. (See here, here and here.)

Other cloud service providers have had much worse problems. Some of Microsoft's services were off the air for a good chunk of a day last week, and an administrative mix-up caused a days-long outage of the Microsoft Azure cloud service back in February, with a similar problem a year ago. Amazon has had numerous and significant outages. (See here, here and here).

In the face of this semi-reliable technical world Microsoft is trying to convince us all that the cloud is a great place to live. Office 365 offers a passel of cloud-based services. Microsoft wants us to think that Office 365 represents the future as being anchored to a cloud rather than to a machine. There is some attractiveness in that vision as long as you trust the solidity of the cloud and the cloud vendor. Microsoft's Office 365 cloud is not perfect but seems to have been generally reliable.

I guess I'm a bit of an old fart stuck in my ways. I do use cloud services, including Google Docs, but I use them for collaboration -- not for original creation. I do the creation on my own computers, where I control the access and, to some degree, the reliability, before transferring the result to the cloud for group development. I do my own backup of the material on my systems so I am not toast if a company goes out of business or changes business models.

Maybe I like the illusion of control, but I am not yet ready to let go and float. The worry of what might happen when human or other failures turns off the anti-gravity machine, and the worry of who thinks they own what I write and what I do make me not yet ready to trust wholeheartedly in the fog that is the cloud.

Disclaimer: Harvard is exploring and using a lot of cloud-based services. I do not know the level of comfort the average university user has in these developments, nor has the university yet made any particular affirmation of trust. So the above distrust represents my own feelings.

This story, "Cloud services: Computus Interruptus" was originally published by Network World.

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