Microsoft snafu calls into question its cloud reliability

If Microsoft can't keep its key license-management site running, how can you trust the software giant to host your infrastructure in its cloud?

You'd think Microsoft could at least do a decent job of running a Web site. But its new Volume Licensing Service Center malfunctioned for much of December, leaving resellers and their customers in the cold. The foul-up, and the company's tepid and belated response to angry customers, belies claims that Microsoft has put its Vista-era troubles behind and raises new questions about the reliability of its cloud-based services.

What happened was a bit complicated, but the ramifications were pretty simple: Resellers, integrators, and enterprise customers rely on the VLSC to track and update license information, download software, and so on. Authorizing a new user, for example, requires getting a key from the site -- no site, no key, no access.

[ Are your software licenses keeping up with the times? Probably not -- and that can cost you big time. Here's how to win the licensing game. | You can expect more cloud computing outages in 2010, predicts InfoWorld's David Linthicum. ]

Previously, resellers went to Microsoft's eOpen and MVLS sites for that information. But when Microsoft replaced them with the VLSC on Dec. 9, users found that the new site was down. And as one angry reseller told me, "When the system came back up, the license information that was in the old system had vanished. Microsoft has made the license purchase/fulfillment process a multistep nightmare."

The net result: wasted time and lost business for the very companies that Microsoft relies on to sell and service enterprise products. And who knows how many hassles for the rank-and-file IT folks who had to explain why their users couldn't access needed applications.

As of this week, the site appears to be functioning, though there are still some reports of problems.

Microsoft outage a lesson in how to do it wrong

We all know that stuff happens: Web sites go down, glitches pop up, software and hardware don't always work. But companies that care about their customers are quick to fess up and let users know when the problem will be resolved. That's not how Microsoft handled the VLSC outage.

On Dec. 14, nearly a week after the new site should have been up and running -- but wasn't -- Richard Gibbons, a software manager with Bechtle UK, posted this comment: "From my point of view as a Microsoft licensing reseller, I haven't heard or seen anything from Microsoft on this subject at all. No heads-up so we can warn our customers, or at least be prepared for the questions, no advice on how we can help, etc." Along with his day job, Gibbons hosts a blog that became a point of contact for users during the outage.

In an e-mail to me, Gibbons adds, "Even as one of the top partners in the U.K., I was unable to get much more information internally, and the Web site gave only a generic message with the usual contact details. I asked Microsoft's PR company Waggener Edstrom for an update/statement on December 14th and have so far received nothing.

[Update: Microsoft statement on outage at end of post]

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