It may have only lasted 100 minutes, but the Great Gmail Outage of last week generated discussion that endured for days. It started with panic attacks on Twitter and took some bizarre turns, such as sparking talk of lawsuits. But in the end, the fact of the outage wasn’t nearly as interesting as what it said about Google, about email and about us. Here are five lessons that Gfail had to offer:
1. Get used to outages. Why? Scale forces history to repeat. As the Internet matures, we expect it to operate more smoothly, so outages make it look like you’re falling behind. But outages can also be a sign of that very maturation. Companies will learn to avoid them, then as the whole thing scales up and grows more complex, it will happen again. There will always be outages, inside the cloud and out.
2. If you can’t stop a crisis, you can control how you respond. Gfail may have caused some companies to think twice about paying Google for its apps, which include Gmail. But when all was said and done, Google’s swift, forthright reaction to a PR nightmare won it praise. In a way, the company’s response outweighed the bad publicity of the outage itself.
3. Big is bad for Google users. Gmail has become a crucial part of many workdays, but many people had no problem finding alternatives such as Twitter — to the point that Twitter itself felt the strain. It reminded me why I would hate for Google to buy Twitter or Facebook or any other communication channels. A supersized Google may help Google, but it doesn’t really help me. As Robert Cringely aptly put it, “[A]t the scale Google operates, even a hangnail can look like a fatal condition.”
4. Email is finally a utility. Email downtime isn’t a life-or-death matter, as a power outage can be. Still, we have come to expect it to be there 99.9 percent of the time. This may seem obvious, but consider that most corporate email systems suffer an hour of unplanned outages a month (in addition to planned downtime).
5. Chain reactions are just a part of networks. Google’s explanation of the Gmail outage made it sound a lot like the way a power outage happens: An overloaded transformer goes down, shifts its load to another prompting that one to go down, and so on. That kind of domino effect also played a big role in last fall’s financial meltdown. That’s how networks work: United you stand, united you fall.