By BEN WORTHEN and JESSICA E. VASCELLARO
Wall Street Journal
Failure Spurs Concern Over Reliability of Online Software
When Google Inc.'s online-email service shut off for over two hours earlier this week, it brought to light concerns about whether businesses can safely rely on software that their employees access over the Internet.
Online software services like Google's Gmail -- which run on vast computer farms managed by companies like Google and Salesforce.com Inc., rather than businesses installing and operating the software themselves -- are a bright spot for the technology sector: Sales grew 27% in 2008 to $6.4 billion, according to research company Gartner. Such services are also often cheaper to operate and easier to get started on, making them attractive options during a recession.
Google's Gmail is one of the most widely-used pieces of online software. Most users are familiar with the free version. Google also sells a suite of online-software services, including an advanced version of Gmail, to companies for $50 a year per user account.
But companies are finding that going online to do business-computing tasks via services like Google's or similar ones offered by Amazon.com Inc. and Salesforce.com, among others, comes with a risk: When something goes wrong, customers must sit idly while waiting for someone else to fix the problem.
"Any time there is a failure it creates concern," said John Dohm, vice president of information technology at True Religion Apparel Inc.
In early February, the online warehouse-management system that True Religion uses was unavailable for two hours, making it impossible for the Vernon, Calif., company to fill orders. "There was nothing I could do about it," said Mr. Dohm.
The latest Gmail outage, which wiped out the service for two and a half hours beginning at 4:30 a.m. EST Monday morning, was caused by some new software having the unexpected side effect of triggering a bug in the Gmail code, which caused a data center to become overloaded when users were directed to it, said Dave Girouard, president of Google's enterprise division, in an interview Wednesday.
The company said it affected a large number of the tens of millions of people who use the service world-wide.
Hundreds of Gmail users flooded Google's product support message board while the service was down. Wrote one: "its just appalling -- I'm on deadline." Another user, identified as being in Spain, wrote: "get this going as I have a deadline to meet."
Such mishaps are inevitable with early-stage technologies, Mr. Girouard said, adding that Google is working hard to eliminate them. "Every time we have an outage like yesterday's, we take a step backwards," he said. The company said that there are hundreds of thousands of paid users of its premium software, which includes the enhanced version of Gmail.
For companies that offer online software, making sure their systems are available is a constant concern. Amazon and Salesforce.com both have sections of their Web sites that track how the systems are performing. Like Google, both companies have suffered outages in recent months that made their services temporarily unavailable.
Amazon is working to minimize outages and keep customers informed when they do happen, said Adam Selipsky, vice president of Amazon Web services.
Despite online glitches, companies like Salesforce.com "offer services that are more reliable than what companies can offer themselves," said Bruce Francis, vice president of corporate strategy as Salesforce.com.
The question of reliability is important for Google and it's data centers, because it is pushing to expand its offering of Web-based applications -- an area it hopes will become a big new business for it. The Gmail crash didn't scare one potential customer. "It doesn't make any difference what so ever," said Peter Whatnell, chief information officer of Sunoco Inc.
Mr. Whatnell, who is evaluating Google's email service, said that the existing email service that he operates for the Philadelphia-based oil company crashes occasionally as well -- it just doesn't get the kind of publicity that an outage at Google gets.
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