When the popular Gmail service broke down 10 days ago, it was a matter of minutes before thousands of users around the world began to vent their frustration. It was also one of the largest demonstrations yet of the vulnerability, and power, of the modern era of internet-based computing. Outsourcing of information technology services has been happening for more than three decades, but the transition of computing power from local clusters of servers to an interconnected global "cloud" is a modern phenomenon that has Google's name written all over it.
Google was one of the first big operators to realise the potential of distributed computing, turning hundreds of thousands of simple personal computer chips into what has become the world's most powerful computing network. In the process, the company's search engine has become a synonym for reliability. And its mail service, while still trailing services such as Microsoft Hotmail and Yahoo Mail on user numbers, is increasingly becoming a globally accepted e-mail standard. Entire organisations are switching their staff to Gmail systems, and last week Adelaide University, in Australia, become the latest university to switch its student mail system to the service.
The cost of a large implementation of e-mail such as Gmail is far less than the cost of running and maintaining in-house systems, and it is less than the cost charged by a traditional technology outsourcer. But incidents such as Gmail's breakdown on Feb 24, when the system was not available for all global users for almost four hours, expose a more unfortunate cost. When the cloud goes down, it goes down in a big way.
Google management says Gmail has a 99.9 per cent reliability rate, meaning the system will go into "down time" for less than 30 minutes each month. Such a rate is better than most in-house corporate mail systems and comparable to many of the best services provided by IT outsources. Injazat Data Systems, the UAE's largest IT outsourcer, recently opened a data centre on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi that is even more stable, with a reliability rate of 99.995 per cent.
"Sending processing and data into the cloud is an amazing way to manage a lot of your computing needs, but sometimes you need that extra level," says Kenny Wilson, Injazat's chief technology officer. "When it comes to truly sensitive information, data that you cannot afford to be without, or information that you have to have total control over, you want to have the physical presence, the local facility."
The reliability rating of the new Injazat facility helped it to gain classification as a Tier IV data centre, which is as good as a centre can get under internationally accepted standards. Through its parent company HP, which recently acquired its joint-venture partner EDS, Injazat can now take advantage of a global cloud of computing power and a bulletproof piece of local infrastructure. "When I first moved here and saw that we were building this centre, I thought it was too big, that we couldn't possibly need all that capacity," Mr Wilson says. "Now, I'm realising that we're going to have to build another one."
In Qatar, a similar move to combine the global cloud with a more localised system of data centres is being pushed by Meeza, a start-up IT services company backed by the Qatar Foundation. With the foundation driving an ambitious national development agenda, including new universities, research centres and a science and technology park, Meeza is busily scooping up contracts for everything from data management to systems development and consulting.
The company has already established a Tier III data centre that offers 99.98 per cent reliability, the best available in Qatar. It will be used in part to service Vodafone, the country's new mobile operator, which recently signed a 125 million Qatari rial (Dh126m) technology outsourcing deal with Meeza. "What we want to be is as good as anyone in the world," says Michael Molson, the vice president for operations at Meeza. "To do that in technology today, you need to be thinking about the whole cloud, not just your resources but all the resources that you and your partners can be utilising."
Although Google is reluctant to share the details of how it manages its private cloud of servers and data centres spread around the globe, it has said that at any given time, all the data associated with a user's e-mail account will be kept in at least two locations, making it all the more unlikely for data to be lost in a system crash or machine failure. But the cloud system also means complexity, in a big way. Where exactly is the physical machine storing your e-mails, credit card information or bank details? As the world's computing, processing and storage facilities become increasingly intertwined, it becomes harder and harder to trace what appears on your screen back to its source.
"With sensitive information, data that comes with legal or commercial sensitivity, keeping it somewhere trusted and local is always going to be the best option," says Mr Molson. "But all the user needs to know when it comes to the cloud is that it works. It just works, and what you really need to be thinking about is how to make the most of it." @Email:email@example.com