Google extends Apps Premier credit for Gmail outages

Due to the three outages that Gmail suffered earlier this month, Google will extend a credit to all paying customers of its hosted Apps suite and has vowed to improve its problem-notification methods.

In an apologetic e-mail sent Wednesday to Apps Premier administrators, Google said it will automatically extend annual subscriptions by 15 days at no extra charge. Apps Premier subscriptions cost $50 per user per year. This 15-day extension is the maximum credit of the 99.9 percent uptime service level agreement Google offers Premier customers for Gmail.

“We’re committed to making Google Apps Premier Edition a service on which your organization can depend. During the first half of August, we didn’t do this as well as we should have,” reads the letter.

One outage, on Aug. 11, lasted about two hours but affected almost all Apps Premier users. The other two, on Aug. 6 and Aug. 15, hit a small number of Apps Premier users, but both outages were lengthy, lasting for some affected users more than 24 hours. In all of the incidents, users were unable to access their Gmail accounts, getting instead an error message when trying to log in.

In Wednesday’s letter, Google said that system reliability is a top priority and that, although it can’t promise zero downtime, it commits to solving outages quickly. “More importantly, we promise you focused discipline on preventing recurrence of the same problem,” the letter reads.

In addition, Google plans to improve the way it informs Apps Premier administrators about system problems via a new dashboard that will become available in a few months.

That dashboard will provide descriptions of problems, especially of their impact on users; a regularly updated estimate of when the issues will be resolved; and, if necessary, a formal report within 48 hours of the resolution. The report will describe the incident, explain its cause, list corrective and preventive actions taken, and provide an outage timeline.

Google officials will also make themselves available to participate in live discussions about the incident with Apps Premier administrators and their companies’ managers.

The plans for fuller disclosure of problem causes, fixes and prevention plans sound good to Gartner analyst Matt Cain, but he’s confused as to why Google didn’t start applying these principles with this letter, which he found slim on details.

“I’d like more transparency into what actually happened and why. They don’t go into that [in this letter]. That’s what they should have done in this note,” Cain said. “Why start in the future and not now?”

Crediting all Apps Premier customers across the board and taking proactive steps to prevent future outages were the right actions for Google to take, said analyst Rebecca Wettemann from Nucleus Research.

“These are natural growing pains for an on-demand vendor,” she said. “Google is doing what it needed to do [to respond to the outages], but in fairness to Google, it’s held to a higher standard in terms of uptime and availability, as are many on-demand vendors, when you compare them to internally deployed applications.”

Apps comes in various versions, including the free Basic and Education editions and the fee-based Premier edition. In addition to Gmail, it includes Google hosted services like Calendar, Sites, Talk and the Docs word processor, spreadsheet and presentation software.

Overall, more than 500,000 businesses with 10 million active users use Apps. Hundreds of thousands of those active users have Premier subscriptions, according to Google.

With Apps, a hosted suite of communications and collaboration applications, Google is a leading proponent of SaaS (software-as-a-service), an emerging model of software delivery that backers say represents the future.

Because vendors host applications in their own data centers, companies don’t have to concern themselves with hardware provisioning and software maintenance. By living in the Internet “cloud,” these hosted applications simplify sharing and collaboration among employees.

However, outages such as the one Gmail experienced are among the biggest question marks regarding SaaS applications, as IT and business managers ponder whether to ditch conventional software packages that are installed on their companies’ servers.

When applications hosted by vendors go down, there is little that IT and business managers can do to remedy the situation and respond to their angry end-users.

Google Apps critics question whether the suite can really provide enterprise-grade software availability and performance and thus be a real option in large companies to conventional, on-premise options like Microsoft’s Office and Outlook/Exchange or IBM Lotus Notes/Domino.

Google acknowledges that most Apps subscribers are individuals or small and medium-size organizations. However, the company has high hopes that the Premier edition, with its IT management and enterprise software integration features, will push into the enterprise market of large companies.

Google has proved it can learn from mistakes and has improved as an enterprise IT provider, Cain said. However, Gartner’s advice to enterprises is to hold off on adopting Gmail as an e-mail system, and this month’s outages justify that position, Cain said.

“A 24-hour outage of e-mail for many companies would be catastrophic. That indicates that our cautious approach is warranted,” he said.

Before giving the green light to its customers, Gartner wants to see at least a dozen enterprise deployments of Apps Premier with at least 10,000 Gmail seats, each running successfully for six to 12 months, Cain said.

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