Centralized Headaches

Gmail had its biggest failure yesterday. Both Google Apps and regular Gmail users were affected. For many people at work here at Arc90 – there was no way to get to your email. The outage affected tens of millions of users.

Email is not about sending and receiving messages anymore. It is about storage. It is about your professional and/or personal archive that you dip into many times a day. With a solution like Gmail, we’ve chosen to centralize everything: the user interface, our history of information (both messages and attachments) as well as the all-important task of sending and receiving mail. And here lies the flaw around such over-zealous centralization: when it goes down, it all goes down. Let’s just be thankful that our data returned this time around. The worst-case scenario is the permanent annihilation of our email history.

Centralized Data

There is no reason why our email history should be soley centrally stored and tapped as needed by a web browser or mobile device. For all time, email lived in numerous places, especially in enterprise environments. Outlook may tap Exchange server for messages, but it mirrored your content locally. If your Exchange server went down, you had your data. Now everyone is talking about how we all need Google Sync for Gmail so we can recreate the benefit of mirroring local and cloud storage. A common, widely-available feature in enterprise email is now highly sought after again in an unduly complex, roundabout way. Syncing is a pain in the ass.

Centralized Interface

Imagine your IMAP or Exchange server going down and the outcome isn’t just no email but no email client. If the mail server goes down, Outlook or Apple Mail won’t load at all. Again, we drank the centralized browser-centric Kool Aid and failed to see how we actually took some steps back. I don’t need a server to send down buttons and levers around my information each time I access email. Marc

Which Direction Are We Coming From And Which Way Do We Go?

So which way do we build out? Do we work our way back and out of the browser with tools like syncing and such or should we web enable existing client apps? Microsoft’s Dare Obasanjo touched on this very point:

When it first shipped I was looking forward to a platform like Google Gears but after I thought about the problem for a while, I realized that such a platform would be just as useful for "online enabling" desktop applications as it would be for "offline enabling" Web applications. Additionally, I came to the conclusion that the former is a lot more enabling to users than the latter.

The culture of web applications, with its focus on "shipping software" and "access anyware," has gleaned over key features that while not sexy or enticing, really show their value when the s%#t hits the fan.

Yesterday was a low probability/high impact event. They are going to happen. What we can do is tweak the chain of dependencies so the failure isn’t so centralized and far-reaching. Oddly, it may require that the "revolutionary" culture of Web software take a good look at taking a backseat to desktops for once.

1 Comment Centralized Headaches

  1. Avi Flax

    Good points, Rich. I’d like to note that there’s a related issue: backup. Most people don’t backup their data, even that which is crucial to them. I think the basic reason for that is that it’s always been way to complicated to do so. Apple’s Time Machine offers some hope in that area; it boils backup down to its essence, and hides the complexity, so average people can backup without too many hassles. And that’s great. But consider that it took twenty-four years — from the release of the first Mac to that of OS X 10.5 Leopard with Time Machine — for us to come up with a simple, reliable, effective, and affordable solution to desktop backup for average people — and it’s still not built-in to the most common OS. And — the irony — just when we’re finally on the cusp of slaying that dragon — at least for Mac users — the game goes ahead and changes! Now people are keeping their data off of their desktops, on other “people’s” computers! Now we have this entirely new dimension to the problem, and once again, it’s being approached haphazardly, obliquely, and without coordination.
    You focus here (as you frequently do) on the divide between the web and the desktop. That’s one way of looking at the problem. But if you look at it from the perspective of backup, you could re-frame the problem as a rule: important data should always exist in more than one place. And by “place”, I mean “responsible party” — I’m sure Google has a strong backup plan, but if they hold the only copy of one’s data, and their system goes down, that means that the data is at least unavailable for some period of time.
    I try to follow this rule, which is why most of my “cloud” data is mirrored on my laptop, and I’ve got multiple geo-redundant backups of my laptop. I set up a desktop mail client to synchronize with my Gmail accounts using IMAP, which means I have not only a backup of my mail, but a local working copy — if Gmail goes down, I can still read and send mail.
    The thing is, that’s all well and good for me, but I’m a geek. I have no illusions that we can expect average people to set up or use such a setup. So I agree with you that it’s time for the cloud service providers to step up and try to address this problem, on the behalf of their users. Gmail, for example, should provide a “Gmail Desktop” application, which would store all of a user’s mail locally and synchronize with the service. When on their own computer, a user could use the app, which would automatically provide the benefits of backup and offline use, on the fly, in the background; when away from their own computer they could still, of course, use the web interface.
    Thanks for the interesting thoughts!


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