Stormy weather: 7 gotchas in cloud computing

Users hit turbulence on the trip to cloud computing.

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"If it were your own company pushing out live code and a problem occurred, you'd make the connection," Methvin explains. "But in this situation, the people using the cloud service started having users complaining, and it was a couple of hours later when they said, 'Maybe it's SiteMeter.' And sure enough, when they took the code out, it stopped happening."

The problem with the new code was greatly magnified because something had changed in the cloud without the users' knowledge. "There was no clear audit trail that the average user of SiteMeter could see and say, 'Ah, they updated the code,' " Methvin says.

Soon after, SiteMeter unexpectedly upgraded its system, quickly drawing the ire of users such as Michael van der Galien, editor of PoliGazette, a Web-based news and opinion site. The new version was "frustratingly slow and impractical," van der Galien says on his blog.

In addition, he says, current users had to provide a special code to reactivate their accounts, which caused additional frustration. Negative reaction was so immediate and intense that SiteMeter quickly retreated to its old system, much to the relief of van der Galien and hundreds of other users.

"Imagine Microsoft saying, 'As of this date, Word 2003 will cease to exist, and we'll be switching to 2007,' " Methvin says. "Users would all get confused and swamp the help desk, and that's kind of what happened."

Over time, he says, companies such as SiteMeter will learn to use beta programs, announce changes in advance, run systems in parallel and take other measures when making changes. Meanwhile, let the buyer beware.

Service Disruptions

Given the much-discussed outages of Amazon S3, Google's Gmail and Apple's MobileMe, it's clear that cloud users need to prepare for service disruptions. For starters, they should demand that service providers notify them of current and even potential outages.

"You don't want to be caught by surprise," says Methvin, who uses both S3 and Gmail. Some vendors have relied on passive notification approaches, such as their own blogs, he says, but they're becoming more proactive.

For example, some vendors are providing a status page where users can monitor problems or subscribe to RSS feeds or cell phone alerts that notify them when there's trouble. "If there's a problem, the cloud service should give you feedback as to what's wrong and how to fix it," Methvin says.

Users should also create contingency plans with outages in mind. At PC Pitstop, for instance, an S3 outage would mean users couldn't purchase products on its site, since it relies on cloud storage for downloads. That's why Methvin created a fallback option. If S3 goes down, products can be downloaded from the company's own servers.

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