Ma.gnolia, Gmail: lost in the clouds

David Mitchell/Ovum
25 Feb 2009

Ma.gnolia, the social bookmarking service that enables people to share and exchange bookmarks has lost substantial amounts of user data due to hardware failures. Hopes of recovering it are slim.

Then yesterday Google’s Gmail suffered its worst outage so far – see here for details. As the Financial Times commented, “The crash is a blow to Google’s ambitions to grow business e-mail and applications that it delivers over the internet. Users of its Google Apps Premier Edition, which charges $50 per account for services including Gmail, complained on support forums yesterday.

“It was difficult enough...convincing the rest of my company that this was a wise move [to Gmail] and the future for us. This will now make it very difficult to instil any sort of confidence,” said one poster.”

There is a general presumption cloud-based services mean access to near-infinite pools of computing resources and that these resources are operated to best in class standards. Of course, the cloud service provider might not actually own all of the equipment. It might work with one of the major data centre experts globally or use an infrastructure-as-a-service provider such as Amazon EC2.

Evidently, this was not the case with Ma.gnolia and we should not expect it to be an isolated case.

Buyer beware

Buyers of cloud services need to treat their purchases with the same seriousness as they would treat mainstream IT purchases. Obviously, there are some cloud services where caveats are acceptable, as not all services need to be of mission-critical robustness.

Part of the buying process for enterprise software and services sees the buyer undertake a degree of technical and commercial due diligence concerning the provider. For software purchases this has generally focused on the functional fit and verification that the supplier will provide product support and updates.

For IT services the recipe is slightly different, focusing more on the service delivery infrastructure and the processes used to deliver the service. For enterprises, buying cloud services should become more akin to purchasing IT services than to acquiring software products. At present too many treat the acquisition of cloud services as though they are acquiring disposable commodities.

Corporate architecture

The lesson from the Ma.gnolia episode is that CIOs should treat cloud services the same way as they treat other IT assets. They need to ensure that they have effective backup and recovery plans for the data held in cloud services, in the same way as they would for on-premise services – whether those backup services are provided by the cloud provider or by the CIO. They also need to test these regularly. They need to have considered the disaster recovery and business continuity provisions – so that the business can continue when a catastrophic failure occurs.

Interoperability is the key ingredient if the CIO to include the cloud services in the broader corporate architecture. At the simplest level, this means that all cloud services should expose functionality through services, so that they offer integration points. For more sophisticated services, different cloud service providers should work together, so that potentially competing offerings can interoperate and support each other, acting as a mirroring service.

David Mitchell is Ovum's SVP IT Research

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