BlackBerry outage: what went wrong

Malik Saadi/Informa Telecoms & Media
18 Oct 2011

It looks like the BlackBerry service outage is now behind us. This incident couldn’t have come at a worse time for RIM, following some harsh criticism in recent months as a result of its recent financial performance, product delays, and the disappointment of its partners – chief among them the operators.

This comment piece will discuss what went wrong in the RIM service systems and what key lesson the company should take from this unpleasant incident.

What went wrong?

RIM said the service disruption was due to a failure of a core hardware switch related to its BlackBerry Internet Servers (BIS); it would appear that the Blackberry Enterprise Server (BES) was not affected. Not only did the switch fail but the failover system that is supposed to back-up to another switch and recover the system was not responding properly although this sub-system had been tested before implementation. If the problem really was related to a hardware failure, then service disruption should not strike again and the problem should now be contained once and for all. However, if the problem is deeper than this and provoked by unknown software glitches, then a full recovery of the system could take days or even weeks, particularly if the system was exposed to malware or a virus attack.

Another origin of the problem could be related to a system overload resulting from the increased numbers of BlackBerry users together with the implementation of new features and services such as media-content sharing, BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) music download and online interactive gaming. Not only do these services generate a huge amount of data that cross the BIS, but also expose the system to malware attacks. If this is the case, RIM will need scale up its infrastructure considerably to cope adequately with the traffic crossing BIS, and this could demand significant investment and time to implement. In the meantime, to alleviate the traffic burden, the company might be forced to switch off some features and services that generate a lot of data. If this is really what is happening, the company could seriously damage its credibility further with its partners – and they would question their reliance on RIM’s roadmap.

The situation could have been much worse if the BES had been affected because this server deals with enterprise services that contain time-sensitive information, including e-mail. Loss of this content would have seriously exposed RIM to legal liabilities and would have pushed enterprise customers to look for alternatives immediately. Having said that, a number of enterprise customers do rely on BIS for e-mail services. In fact, RIM recently launched the BES “Lite” version which allows enterprises to download the BES for free and enables their employees to access the service via BIS. So these employees now have the same functionality from BES, but accessing via a BIS plan.

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