Gmail leaves Google Apps admins nervous

Recent outages inconvenience and irritate users, who still remain hopeful that Google will correct problems

When Gmail crashed on Monday, affecting many organizations that depend on it for work e-mail via the Google Apps suite, widespread gnashing of teeth ensued.

At Alaska's APTI public TV and radio station, reporters working on deadline scrambled to gather information without e-mail as a tool.

[ Discover the top-rated IT products as rated by the InfoWorld Test Center. ]

In the middle of an important press announcement, staffers at San Francisco Internet startup Kwiry sought alternate ways to stay in touch with contacts.

At Davidoff Communications , the outage hit less than 24 hours after the Chicago company's migration of its five users to Google Apps.

"Since we're only on day four of our implementation, let's just say if Apps were on my baseball team, it would be hitting at the bottom of the lineup," said Davidoff Systems Administrator Mitch Wilkos in an e-mail interview this week.

With its Apps hosted suite of communications and collaboration applications, Google is a leading proponent of software-as-a-service (SaaS), an emerging model of software delivery that backers say represents the future.

Because vendors host applications in their own datacenters, companies don't have to concern themselves with hardware provisioning and software maintenance. By living in the Internet "cloud," these hosted applications simplify sharing and collaboration among employees.

However, the experience of users living through the recent Google Apps outages could serve as a deterrent to some IT and business managers who might not be ready to ditch conventional software packages that are installed on their servers.

If a company relies on Google Apps for its e-mail, its IT and business managers have little to do when a Gmail outage hits them, and, with end-users demanding explanations, this waiting game can be a very stressful situation, as John Proffitt, IT services director at APTI, can attest.

"For me as the Google Apps administrator, the disruption was pretty damn irritating. Aside from getting kicked out of e-mail I need to do my own job, it also forced me to completely refocus on figuring out what's happening with Gmail and Google Apps," he said in an e-mail interview.

For the two hours that the outage lasted, Proffitt estimates that about 75 percent of the organization's approximately 40 employees were affected, some severely, including the journalists who make up about a quarter of the staff.

"It was constant troubleshooting, testing, research, posting to the Google Apps forums and so on. Plus there's the emotional strain of wondering whether you completely screwed up by moving everyone to Google Apps as our sole e-mail system. That's what freaked me out: Did Google just make me look like an idiot?" Proffitt added.

That's not a nice feeling to have, especially since Proffitt did his homework and took his time before deciding to move his end-users to Google Apps. He used the suite for about nine months himself "as a guinea pig" and then rolled it out to the entire organization six weeks ago.

Prior to Monday's crash, his satisfaction level with Google Apps was about 90 percent. Now he puts it at 70 percent.

"Mostly that 20 percent drop is based on fear of another, perhaps more damaging, outage. It hasn't happened, but now I know it could happen any time and without warning, and if it does I have virtually no recourse to get the service running again," he said.

Monday's outage was sandwiched between two other Gmail crashes -- one last week and another one on Thursday and Friday of this week, both of which were smaller in scale. Proffitt wasn't affected by those other outages, but he's ready to rethink his status as hosted software adopter if things don't go well in the future.

"If we began to experience a similar outage more than about two or three business hours per quarter, we'd probably make Google Apps and Gmail a backup solution to a locally hosted mail system, if we used it at all. And it would likely be years before we'd try a cloud-based collaborative system again from any vendor," Proffitt said.

Still, Proffitt and other Apps administrators interviewed are hoping that Google will quickly strengthen the reliability of Gmail and the other suite components to a point where crashes become extremely rare. The benefits Apps offers to their small and medium-size organizations are significant in terms of cost savings and the flexibility of Web-based software.

"Even though we've only had Apps for a few days, I'm already impressed with the customization options. The ability to completely ditch Outlook makes Apps a worthwhile service to our company," said Davidoff's Wilkos. "The Gmail interface feels more intuitive and is significantly quicker than Outlook. And the mobile accessibility is a huge improvement over our old e-mail service."

Although Monday's outage stung Kwiry on an important day, and the startup was hit briefly again on Thursday, CEO Ron Feldman is betting on Google Apps. "Google understands its tremendous responsibility to keep things up and running," Feldman said via e-mail.

Carlos Leyva, managing shareholder at Digital Business Law Group , is also confident in Google and is sold on the SaaS model, which he expects will allow his new law firm to grow quickly without having to spend a fortune on its computing infrastructure.

"No one's happy when there's downtime, but there's always downtime. I've seen Exchange go down often. Many times you're left to your own IT people to fix it. That can be good or bad. I'd rather it be Google's problem. They've got a world-class team. Their reputation is on the line. Over time, they're going to get better and better," he said in a phone interview.

Thomas Harbinson, president of IDA International in Derby, Connecticut, found Monday's outage a minor disruption for the engineering and construction service company's 11 users. They have been very satisfied with Apps, which the company has been using for about a year after migrating away from Exchange.

"As a small organization looking at pre-Google Apps practice, if it had been my hardware in-house that went down, I would not have had anywhere near the reaction time and response to be restored as Google did with the Apps service," Harbinson said via e-mail.

Gmail users report yet another outage, Aug. 15, 2008
Gmail users hit by outage again, Aug. 12, 2008
Google Apps hit by prolonged Gmail access problem, Aug. 7, 2008

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

How to choose a low-code development platform