Earlier this month, Gmail, the popular email service provided by Google, experienced a service outage that left some users without their email for 24 hours. Some of the users who were affected Aug. 15 included customers of Google Apps, Google's software as a service (SaaS) suite that includes Gmail, calendar, documents & spreadsheets, instant messaging and wikis.
The incident begged questions such as: how reliable are online email systems like Gmail? Are they a viable alternative to traditional, on-premise email systems? CIO asked Michael Osterman, president of Osterman Research, who has studied the messaging and communications facets of software, both the installed onpremise variety and SaaS since his company's founding in 2001. Osterman says the Google outage demonstrates the need for Gmail to have an offline mode, but thinks a lot of this is only news because it's happening to the high-profile Google.
CIO: Were the Gmail outages a commentary on hosted e-mail from SaaS providers (like Google) or is it something we should have expected?
Osterman: I think it should be expected. E-mail outages are not uncommon, regardless if the infrastructure is on-premise or hosted. If you were to look at an in-house infrastructure, it also experiences downtime. You don't hear about it as much unless it were a General Motors or a Bank of America or something big like that. If Bank of America's e-mail goes down, they're not going to get on the phone with you and say, "hey, guess what just happened!" They're not necessarily trying to keep it a secret, but they're not trying to make it well known either. The Google Mail outages is given more attention, and it will give SaaS a black eye. But if you look at Google's records, Gmail is still well over 99 percent available.
CIO: If email outages are unavoidable, what could Google or other SaaS-based email providers do to help their customers during these periods of downtime?
Osterman: Part of the problem is a lot of SaaS users (like Gmail users) are just using a Web-based interface. They don't have offline capability. They're even more dependent upon the system being up because as soon as the system goes down, all of their functionality stops. For the typical desktop user, you can still sit in Microsoft Outlook and keep cranking out e-mails that just pile up in your outbox. You can still look for contacts, where as with a completely online model, you can't do that when the system is down. Organizations using SaaS need a mix of offline and online capability. It makes sense for Outlook to work with Google mail or something like that. Zimbra, for instance, has a desktop client you can download from their website. The experiences [between that and the web-based interface] are very similar, except when the mail goes down. [With Zimbra,] you can still do work in the desktop client.
CIO: What are the upsides to SaaS-based e-mail that shouldn't be forgotten amidst the Gmail incident?
Osterman: If you look at the total cost, you can do hosted a lot cheaper than on-premise. If you look at just the general dollar outlays, for a very large organization, it'll at first seem cheaper to do it in-house. But then you have to look at the opportunity cost. You can [take] IT staff and put them on something that is more value-added [than e-mail maintenance]. You can take one off managing spam or two IT administrators managing e-mail servers and put them on integration efforts with a customer service environment as an example. There's a lot of advantages of going hosted because you can redeploy people to things that are going to provide more value to your company.
CIO: But even knowing that, we see so many organizations still on-premise. So what gives?
Osterman: It's a variety of things. There's still this perception that on-premise is cheaper than hosted. Sometimes that true, but very often it's not. There are also concerns about the security of the data. People are afraid that if their e-mail stores are in some remote data center, there could be a compromise of the data. The stories about Google mail going down also put people on hold. They'll say, "Well, we can't afford to be an hour without e-mail." And the problems may be no worse with Google mail than it would be with an on-premise e-mail, but again Google gets a lot more press and attention. Hosted e-mail could have a better service record than on-premise, but you just don't hear about it. All people focus on are the negatives.
CIO: When people ask you about the security question of SaaS versus on-premise, what is your response?
Osterman: Hosted providers have very robust security. I visited Zantaz [which does hosted email archives] a year and a half ago. They walked me through their facility. You had to walk through four access doors and you needed two-factor identification. They have video cameras with constant surveillance. There are all kinds of security that you typically don't find in most organizations. So my advice is look at your own security, and look at theirs, and you'd probably find they have better security than you do.
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