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The Cloud: Still a Work in Progress

News of an outage of from eight to 12 hours involving Microsoft’s Exchange Online email system came shortly after the company announced a huge expansion of the OneDrive cloud storage service. So you get 15GB free, and 1GB if you subscribe to one of the Office 365 services. There are also individual packages covering just the storage, but Office 365 is the best value, obviously, since you get the full suite of Office apps for Mac, Windows or iPad. In turn, Google’s Drive for Work, at $10 per user, offers its own suite of online apps and email, plus unlimited storage space.

But what good is all that storage if the service is unreliable?

In this case, the outage did not impact users who accessed their Exchange email from a corporate server, or a third-party email host, such as FuseMail, PolarisMail or Rackspace. I suppose that may argue against depending on Microsoft’s sprawling cloud system, but it can happen to anyone. Rackspace’s email system was down a few months back due to a DDoS hacker attack that persisted for over a day.

If you think Google might be a suitable alternative, even if you pay for their business services and turn off the ads, don’t forget that they’ve had outages too, and the same is true for Amazon, iCloud and other systems. Perfection remains the unfulfilled dream.

Besides, it’s not that Exchange is the only game in town. In addition to Gmail, there’s Open-XChange, intended to be a friendlier and less expensive Exchange alternative that a number of major web hosts, including Namecheap, offer. What’s more, the other email hosting services are adding more and more collaborative features to enhance business email, and some of them cost no more than a dollar or two per user for gobs of message storage. So nobody’s locked into Microsoft by any means.

I do wonder, though, whether Apple might consider offering a business alternative to iCloud email, where you can add your own business domain. It does seem that Apple is moving in that direction by expanding iWork for iCloud and making it easier for multiple users to collaborate on documents. Again, though, it’s clear that the cloud is far from perfection, and few can claim that you’ll be free of service outages.

And for those who have followed the sometimes ridiculous political byplay in Washington, even the IRS cannot guarantee a reliable email system, or that employees won’t suffer from hard drive breakdowns and thus lose supposedly critical messages. But that’s what happens when you choose the lowest bidder. Even if Microsoft came in an offered to fix government email systems, why take them seriously?

It also seems as if lots of people take the cheap way out with email, even when conducting business. If you’re not using the service offered by your ISP, or AOL, it’s apt to be Yahoo or Gmail. Microsoft’s free Outlook service, the one formerly known as Hotmail or Live, doesn’t get near as much use, at least in the messages I receive.

One report I read claimed that workers may spend an average of 28% of their workday dealing with composing and reading email. Phone calls? Well, maybe that’s just old fashioned. I know that I’ve made fairly large deals over the years with advertisers via email and, when I was writing tech books, for new titles. I seldom talked to anyone on the phone, even for deal making, the editorial process and inquiring as to the status of a payment.

What all this means, then, is that a typical company is highly dependent on email. Even orders handled by a shopping cart system will present themselves in emails, as will notices from your bank or other financial institution. Without email, you are more or less handicapped.

Yes, there is the telephone, but I find that I spend very little time actually talking to people, although I’m not involved in a business where conversation is paramount except, of course, for my two radio shows. And, yes, I do talk to my wife, and I do, on occasion, have a real conversation with my son, via a Skype connection since he lives in Madrid.

Regardless, and for better or worse, it’s a sure thing that a company may live or die on the basis of email. But how can you be sure that the service you choose will be there for you 24/7? The answer is, of course, that you can’t. Maybe the best alternative is to set up a second email system as a backup, even a free one, so you can stay in touch with the people you need to reach even when the primary email server is on the blink.

It’s still true, though, that people will forget the Microsoft outage soon enough, just as they will probably forget the next one and one after that. That’s also the case for the outages experienced by other email systems.

But as you and I depend more and more on cloud-based services to conduct business, the onus is on the companies who provide those services to fix the problems — and soon.