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Is the cloud reliable enough for your business?

Outages at a cloud computing service could hurt your business. The question is whether your in-house systems can do better.

By Cindy Waxer
June 1, 2009 12:01 AM ET

Computerworld - In April of last year, Satoshi Nakajima, founder of Washington-based Big Canvas Inc., was eagerly inviting new customers to subscribe to his company's flagship product, PhotoShare, which lets users swap Apple iPhone photos for free.

Three months later, Nakajima was extending those same subscribers heartfelt apologies.

His mea culpa wasn't in response to product glitches, poor customer service or any of the other growing pains known to plague start-ups. Rather, PhotoShare and its 50,000 subscribers (now 150,000 strong) had fallen victim to stormy weather in the cloud computing environment: a seven-hour outage on July 20 when Amazon.com Inc.'s S3 cloud service went down -- for the second time in 2008.

Nakajima pays $900 a month for Amazon's cloud computing services. He subscribes to the vendor's Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) for flexible computing capacity and Simple Storage Service (S3) for unlimited data storage space, which Big Canvas uses to store customers' photos. As a result of the outage, brought on by what Amazon said were poorly communicating servers, Big Canvas lost photos belonging to 50 customers. Nakajima called each to apologize personally.

"We simply told them: 'The last photos you posted are gone. I'm sorry; either resubmit them -- or forgive us," recalls Nakajima, formerly the lead software architect on Microsoft Windows.

Nakajima isn't the only business owner who's been forced to pick up the pieces after a cloud computing outage. In February, about 113 million Google Gmail subscribers had to wait patiently or turn to an alternate e-mail service when Google Inc.'s Web-based e-mail system went on the blink for several hours. And last month, 14% of Google Apps users faced slow service or interruptions because of a network traffic jam.

And last July 18, Apple's online cloud service, MobileMe , which synchronizes e-mail, contacts and calendar events, remained unavailable to users throughout much of the day, prompting disgruntled users to say things like "MAC.COM BLOWS!" on support forums.

Such snafus haven't stopped an increasing number companies from turning to cloud computing services for pay-as-you-go processing power and storage space that don't require an investment in IT infrastructure. Research firm IDC predicts that worldwide IT spending on cloud services will grow almost threefold by 2012, reaching $42 billion. But as dependency grows, so too do concerns about cloud computing's reliability and whether big-name vendors like Amazon, Google and Apple will accept responsibility for outages.

In a 2008 IDC survey of 244 CIOs and business executives, more than 63% of the respondents rated performance and availability as two of the top three challenges surrounding cloud computing services. And nearly 75% said they consider security to be a serious concern.

Small businesses like Big Canvas aren't the only ones sweating cloud computing's shortcomings. Although start-ups are often the hardest hit by outages, even the venerable New York Times, which uses S3 to store and deliver articles from its historical database, was down for the count when Amazon Web Services suffered a two-hour outage in February 2008.



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