Google solves Gmail outage, but questions remain

It had three outages in two weeks

Late Friday night, Google Inc. resolved the third Gmail outage of the past two weeks, but questions remain about the stability of the webmail service, which is affecting the Google Apps hosted software suite.

Like the previous two outages, the latest one occurred as a log-in error that locked users out of their accounts. This time, some users were prevented from accessing their accounts for more than 24 hours.

All three outages affected not only individual Gmail users, but also people who use it as part of the Google Apps suite of collaboration and communication applications.

Google acknowledged the Gmail problem Friday and said it affected "a small subset" of the service's users. The company didn't immediately comment about what is causing the recurring log-in problem, nor did it provide a more specific figure for the amount of Gmail users affected.

The long outage was painful for several Google Apps users contacted via e-mail.

Denmark's chapter of Fair Allocation of Infotech Resources (FAIR), an international nonprofit group, just started using Google Apps. When the outage hit, system developer Benjamin Bach was showing the suite to his colleagues ahead of the planned launch of FAIR Denmark's Web site this week.

The outage lasted more than 24 hours. "Seeing such a long outage during the very first few days makes us wonder if a free solution provided by Google is actually 'pro' enough for us. We cannot correspond with schools in Africa or partners in Denmark and afford being out of mail for a whole day," Bach said.

FAIR, based in Norway, is devoted to supplying computer products to developing countries. The Denmark chapter is just getting off the ground and expects to grow its Apps user base from four people to as many as 20.

Google Apps comes in several versions, including Basic and Education, which are free, and Premier, which costs $50 per user per year and includes additional functionality, a 99.9% uptime guarantee for Gmail and phone-based technical support.

"I can give them a lot of credit for providing a free service, but they lose some of that when saying, 'Your e-mail is totally inaccessible, and we're not going to tell you why or for how long.' It's arrogant. I'm a system administrator, so I deserve to know a little more," Bach said.

Indeed, Google seemed slow to address this latest outage. The first reports started appearing in the official Apps and Gmail discussion forums on Thursday afternoon Eastern time. However, Google didn't acknowledge the problem in the forums until almost 5 p.m. on Friday, more than 24 hours after the first reports appeared. Google declared the problem solved shortly after 10 p.m. on Friday.

Also without Gmail for more than 24 hours was Howard Feldstein, chairman of the Mexico chapter of Democrats Abroad, the official U.S. Democratic Party organization for American expatriates. "We're quite busy leading up to the convention. I have relied on Gmail not only for e-mail but for my primary contact list and was totally isolated for more than a day," he said.

Abhishek Parolkar, an IT consultant in Bangalore, India, also lost access to his Google Apps and Gmail accounts for more than 24 hours, which disrupted important billing messages from clients.

Sadie Upchurch, president of Glinting Communications, a public relations firm near Atlanta, was affected for about 15 hours. "I was on client deadlines and had to work around for reroutes and resends of e-mails from those clients," she said.

"I do remind myself that I'm not paying for the service and that there's a level of patience and adequate backup you've got to have when you're getting something for free," she added.

Still, it's common for organizations to try out Google Apps via its free Basic version before considering a move to the fee-based Premier edition, so a wobbly e-mail component is unlikely to entice anyone to upgrade. Google serves all of its Gmail users, from individuals to Google Apps Premier account holders, from the same infrastructure, so Gmail outages hit all types of users indiscriminately.

The suite, even its free version, is geared toward workplace use and designed for employee collaboration, which is why it contains calendar, word processing, spreadsheet, presentation and Web site creation applications.

For that reason, it's unlikely that Google would consider several lengthy Gmail outages in a span of two weeks as the norm for Apps. After all, Google has aspirations that Apps will grow its very small presence among large enterprises, which demand high performance and availability levels from their software. Apps is currently used mostly by small organizations.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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