Google's Gmail fail casts dark cloud on cloud computing

Editor’s Note: The following article is reprinted from the Today @ PC World blog at PCWorld.com.

Tuesday's Gmail outage was not only an inconvenience, it calls into question—yet again—the feasibility of present day cloud computing.

One popular prediction is that future computers won’t need huge hard drives because all our applications and personal data (photos, videos, documents and e-mail) will exist on remote servers on the Internet (otherwise known as “cloud computing”).

But how viable is this Utopian computing future when the accessibility of your files is dependent on forces beyond your control?

Gmail fail

When Gmail went down Tuesday, many users were left without access to their e-mail for nearly two hours. After Google had sorted out the mess, the company said in a blog post the cause of the outage was overloaded servers. Sound familiar? Google gave a similar explanation in May after a widespread service outage left 14 percent of Google users across the globe without access to many of the search company’s services.

But despite previous failures, many people still believe in Google's reliability and trust that their data will always be there. PC World contributing editor Harry McCracken, for example, was kicking himself yesterday for not downloading a backup of his e-mail using Gmail’s offline feature or with an e-mail client like Microsoft Outlook or Mozilla Thunderbird.

In fact, Tuesday’s outage didn’t affect Gmail users who used e-mail clients since these programs rely on different servers than Gmail’s Web mail version. But even if users relying on old-fashioned e-mail clients had lost access to their e-mail yesterday, they still would have been able to access archived messages with vital information since e-mail clients can save past messages to your hard drive. Either way, you were far better off yesterday with an e-mail client than with Web-only access to Gmail.

The future will be online

But despite clear, albeit infrequent, problems with cloud computing most tech companies are still shooting for the sky.

Google made a big splash earlier this year after the company announced it was working on a new operating system it calls Chrome OS. Details are few about what exactly Chrome OS will do, but Google has made it clear the system will rely heavily on accessing the Web and Web-based applications instead of desktop programs.

Microsoft is also getting into the cloud with Microsoft Office 2010’s online edition that will compete directly with services like Google Docs. Redmond isn’t stopping with an online version of its productivity suite either, the company already has a developer platform, Azure, that is cloud based. The software company has also been working on its own consumer Web OS, called Midori, since last year.

On top of the looming cloud OS battle between Google and Microsoft, there are also a wide variety of companies coming out with Web-based desktops or Webtops. These services mimic the look and feel of a local desktop, but exist entirely online where you can store data and work on documents. If you need access to documents across multiple computers at home and work, then Webtops can relieve you of the hassle of carrying around a thumb drive or e-mailing yourself updated versions of a given document. I tested out a few of these services last month, and I found that Webtops could be pretty handy. But once again you have to trust the availability of your data to someone else, and for me that's a problem.

Hard drive vs. the cloud

Of course, it’s not like your hard drive isn’t susceptible to outages either. According to two separate studies done in 2007 by Carnegie Mellon University and Google respectively, anywhere from 2 to 13 percent of all hard drives will fail in a given year. That’s a lot of computers going down every 12 months, but a hard drive failure typically affects a small number of users. A cloud outage, on the other hand, can affect millions of people all over the globe. Sure, you may not actually lose your data from a Web app outage in the long run, but losing access for an hour or two can still be aggravating and costly for anyone who relies on Web-based applications at work.

Not to mention the fact that cloud computing is supposed to remove the hassle of backups from your life by shifting that responsibility to online services. But if this latest Gmail failure has proven anything it’s that local hard drives should always be an important part of any computer. Maybe one day you won’t need to have massive storage space to keep a copy of absolutely every photo, video or document you own, but vital data like e-mail will still need a little storage space offline no matter how reliable companies claim their cloud solutions are.

Google has said it has already corrected some of the problems related to Tuesday’s Gmail outage, and will be working hard to make sure a similar failure doesn't happen again. But considering Google’s recent track record, I’m hunkering down for the next failure with a good e-mail client and a steady stream of back-ups for my most important documents.

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