Dark Clouds: Demanding an End to Outages of Online Services
July 20, 2009
In January, Salesforce.com's "on-demand" services for managing customer relationships--popular with Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley other Wall Street firms--went down for about an hour.
In the middle of May, Google went down for two hours, leaving users unable to access the search engine--but also email, documents and other Google services popular with small business users that were hidden in its widely dispersed computing "cloud."
Then, in early June, customers of Amazon's Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) cloud computing services were offline for more than four hours after lightning struck one of the company's data centers.
The portent of such problems used to make Bob Barry wary of cloud-based computing. For the president of Barry Capital Management Inc., a small wealth management firm based in Hackettstown, New Jersey, reliability of computing services is paramount.
Barry used Goldmine customer relationship software on desktop computers for 15 years. When he originally learned about Salesforce.com, he heard--and worried--that the system had a lot of downtime.
He finally made the switch to Salesforce.com a year ago, after getting frustrated with his previous system, a desktop software package.
"Allegedly you could do all these wonderful customizations--over 15 years we did a fair amount of them--but they were 100 times more difficult than they needed to be, and didn't work near as well when they finished," he said.
He wanted to move quickly, as he fought the economic crunch--and not hire a programmer to make changes that suit his business. With Salesforce, he doesn't need to hire outside staff.
"I made four customizations this morning between 9:10 and 9:30, before I went to a customer meeting," he said.
Plus, Barry says he is very happy with the reliability of the Salesforce service. He hasn't personally experienced any unscheduled downtime when he tries to tap into "the cloud."
"I'm generally on the system all day," he said, "And at night until 12 o'clock or 1 in the morning, seven days a week," he said.
Not that Salesforce.com doesn't go offline, at all. There is middle of the night scheduled downtime, for maintenance. Typically, around 2:30 a.m.
For his capital management company, which handles about $25 million in assets, that's okay. "They've managed to tuck the maintenance into a spot where it hasn't affected us at all," he said.
But for Wall Street firms looking to move mission-critical applications into the cloud, any downtime at all is bad news-whether scheduled or not.
Cloud computing providers are moving to increase reliability and reduce downtime, said Larry Scott, president of global industries for Hackensack, NJ-based IT consulting firm Ness Technologies.
"The reliability question is being addressed through a strategy--I don't think entirely quite reality yet--of dynamic, redundant, integrated clouds," he said.
In effect, a cloud is a remote collection of servers, often called a server farm; or, a network of such farms. If one farm goes down, the others can step in and take over the load, without customers noticing the switch.
Applications can be moved easily to other clouds--other networks of server farms aka data centers--with management coming in the form of data center automation tools that manage the interactions of these clouds.