Google Docs Outage “Mea Culpa”

Google has made a blog post concerning the reasons for their Google Docs outage last week. In essence, a bug in their software was exposed when they added an enhancement, a bug that was only visible under heavier load than seen in the test environment. One of those "Wait, that didn't happen in the simulator" moments. I don't see this as an indictment against Google. Everyone makes mistakes and this is just that kind of ornery bug that is very hard to find without actually pushing your systems to max. But it still raises the question of how the cloud should be used.

Google's concept of cloud services, where not only is the data entirely stored remotely but the functionality is accessed there too, demands a full time connection to the remote server to work. While losing access to your stash of poetry or your grandmother's cache of recipes isn't likely to have caused you too much upset, being unable to grab the most recent copy of the contract on your way to the merger meeting might be a little more unsettling. Sure, you probably have a copy somewhere locally... right? The fact is, when you rely on this sort of arrangement, you are potentially putting some of your most critical digital possessions in the hands of another company. Even a company as well established as Google can fail. But surely it's more likely that your own machines would fail before Google's would. Okay, let's grant that. Google even outlined the steps they were taking to try to prevent this sort of problem (I hesitate to call it a disaster given what all is happening in the world these days, but some may feel the description fits) happening in the future. Are they going to also put into effect a plan that prevents a backhoe from severing my company's connection to the outside world and thus Google's servers? Will they also provide a plan that will prevent an accounting error from inadvertently shutting off my internet pipe? The fact is Google is not the only link in the chain between me and their servers and they're not even the weakest link. They are only one link and one part of the problem.

Apple's take, using the cloud as a form of automated storage, is a better bet. You get the convenience of local access plus the comforts of remote storage and availability. I won't care (as much) if my link to Apple gets cut because my Word document (or Pages for you purists) is resting peacefully in my Documents folder. Let the backhoes come and let destruction break forth upon my internet connection. I am prepared.

That's not to say that view isn't without its problems of course. It means my hardware purchases will still require more hard drive capacity which means greater expense. It means that I will be responsible for keeping my software up to date instead of simply hitting a website where the software is always up to date. But hard drives are getting cheaper for the most part. It's a downward trend for price, even for SSD devices. And the automatic update functionality for any major OS these days provides plenty of convenience for staying patched. For apps that I didn't get from an App Store, there are still options. Developers have been including update checks in their software for years. And of course, for those that don't, yes there will be a gap. The gap is shrinking over time.

The fact is that Google cannot guarantee that I will always be able to access my data and software anytime, from anywhere. They can hold up their end of things and frankly I trust them to do that. Not just because they have shown a penchant for being able to put together solid deployments but also because it's becoming their lifeblood. What they cannot do is ensure I will always be able to read my poetry at 3AM. And that's just unacceptable.


HP’s Future Cloudy

HP has announced a 'private Cloud beta' to introduce developers to their new HP Cloud Services. This is broken into two actual named services, HP Cloud Compute and HP Cloud Object Storage. This breaks the cloud functionality up into the two traditional bits of cloud computing: putting stuff in the cloud (storage) and doing stuff in the cloud (computing). I just wonder if it's the right move, at the right time, done right.

With this announcement, HP is further declaring their shift to software services under CEO Apotheker. Moreover, these services are targeted squarely at developers and companies to build upon and deliver their own products with HP as the underpinning, again a shift away from HP as the provider of an end product for consumers. This isn't a bad thing, but it presents a problem: product differentiation. There are already cloud storage solutions available, Amazon S3 for example, though Google Storage is in Lab state and other competitors are around though perhaps not as well known. Why is HP entering what looks to be a pretty crowded field? If they have a long term plan, given the turmoil they've been suffering through, wouldn't it be a good idea to be as transparent as possible right about now?

If HP Cloud Object Storage and HP Cloud Compute are meant to integrate tightly, it makes a certain amount of sense. If you truly have a need for heavy computing, it's reasonable to levy HP's servers to get the job done perhaps at a fraction of the cost it would take to buy the hardware yourself. And their storage is right there waiting for you to use too. But one gets the impression that Object Storage is intended to be leveraged as a separate entity altogether. And as evidenced by yesterday's vanishing act with Google Docs, albeit temporary, the further your data is away from you, the more easily it can become out of reach when you need it the most.

Still, kudos to HP for announcing something they are actually going to offer. It must be nice not to have to constantly remind folks about the products they are killing off.

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Google’s Cloud Evaporating

I've written before, elsewhere, about cloud computing as the latest trend (though that's not to say it's new, just that it is trending.. again). At the time I laid out pros and cons from the point of view of putting the entire computing experience into the cloud. But of course, that's only one way to do it. Currently there are two major companies who are pushing their own views of how cloud computing should be done, Google and Apple. And Google just stumbled.

Google suffered an outage today with their Google Docs service. Google Docs, if you are not familiar with it, allows one to import, create, edit and share documents using only your Google account and a modern browser. These documents are Office-like, with the ability to import Word, Excel and Powerpoint documents as well as to create native Google Docs documents too. All of the storage is tucked away on Google's servers. All you need to be able to do is launch a browser and direct it to Google and you're good to go. Equally convenient is the ability to share these documents with other Google users making them immediately available for viewing or even editing, including collaborative editing should you so choose. That is, convenient until it stops working.

Apple on the other hand is nearing the release of the much anticipated iCloud service, enabling the cross-device sharing of documents and settings between thick client apps on a per user basis. As information is altered, it is marked for synchronization. Presumably if the service is unavailable, the synchronization step is simply delayed until the service is available once more. This could be because the network connectivity has dropped or because Apple's servers are dead. It doesn't really matter. The cloud connection becomes a mere background task while for the end user life goes on as usual. And that's the way cloud computing should be.

Google's entire platform is centered around it's own services run on its own servers. Apple is about their hardware. The services are an aside, or perhaps a funnel, showing potential buyers the extra goodies they get by joining the Apple camp. As a result, Apple doesn't need to create a web enabled version of iWorks or iLife that works in a browser. They don't want to. They want apps that run on your iron, in your own home or office. Namely, the iron you bought in the form of your MacBook or iMac or Mac Pro. Google, on the other hand, is platform agnostic. You could be using a Dell, an Asus, an HP (well, for a little while longer anyway). It only matters that you are using their services.

I should correct myself. Google does actually have hardware for sale... the Chromebook. Running their OS, targeted at their services and software. So in fact, insofar as Google is playing in the hardware space, they are actual working the exact reverse route as Apple, using hardware to sell their services. As their flagship hardware product, I don't expect them to drop it, but I also don't expect it to take off. Especially with the possibility that one little network outage could leave you unable to work with any of your documents.

Which brings us back to today's outage. Google hasn't misstepped very often, but they've double down on software as a service and full commitment to cloud computing, pushing everything off of the user's PC and into the cloud. As a result, if they lose this bet, it's going to hurt very badly. And that doesn't even mention Microsoft's burgeoning efforts in this space. Google is taking their stand in the cloud but if they're not careful, they'll find themselves taking a big fall.