Dropbox And Microsoft Snags Raise Cloud Questions

Microsoft and Dropbox problems revive questions and doubts about embracing the cloud for varied IT needs

How reliable is the cloud?

That is a pressing question for consumers and businesses mulling whether to take their data off-premises. Meanwhile, tech companies fill their cloud literature with phrases like “redundant systems” and “security”, designed to soothe any fears about signing up for an online subscription service.

Despite those assurances, problems do occur. Online storage provider Dropbox applied a code change at 20:54 pm GMT on June 19 that caused problems with the authentication mechanism, switching off users’ account passwords for nearly four hours. That meant anyone could access any account by typing in any string of numbers and letters as the password, potentially exposing data belonging to the service’s 25 million customers.

“This should never have happened,” Dropbox founder and CTO Arash Ferdowsi wrote in a June 20 corporate blog posting. “We are scrutinising our controls and we will be implementing additional safeguards to prevent this from happening again.”

Outages Part Of The Equation

Most cloud-related issues are not nearly so spectacular but service outages nonetheless remain a factor under consideration by businesses deciding whether to embrace the cloud.

Some North American users of Microsoft’s Business Productivity Online Suite (BPOS) messaging and collaboration service were experiencing network connectivity issues starting the morning of June 22. “Source of network issue identified and hardware components replaced. Next update within 30 mins,” read the Official Microsoft Online Twitter feed at around 1 p.m. EST June 22.

Around 50 minutes later, a follow-up Tweet read: “Service restored for Sign In app. Health Dashboard still showing intermittent access issues. Next update within 30 mins.”

On May 10, malformed email traffic sparked a growing message backlog that impacted some BPOS customers for up to six to nine hours. The issue occurred again May 12, compounded by a separate but related problem that led to customer delays as long as three hours. In the wake of that, Microsoft executives insisted the issues affecting BPOS would not come into play with Office 365, Microsoft’s upcoming cloud-based productivity platform (and a BPOS rebranding).

“O365 should provide more stable service,” read a June 22 Tweet on the Official Microsoft Online Twitter feed. “It is built from the ground up new and reports and expectations are very good.”

Even AWS And Google Are Not Infallible

Back in April, an outage at Amazon Web Services led to service disruptions across the Internet, affecting popular Websites such as Reddit, Quora and Hootsuite. Google lost some of its users’ email data in February, after which it launched an aggressive effort at restoration.

The possibility of downtime is something baked into most cloud contracts; the question is what happens when the outage is so catastrophic that it leads to data loss, or when an issue on the provider’s side results in data being stolen by some outside agency. For most companies, including Microsoft, the response to more well-publicised events is to issue some sort of credit for the cloud-time lost.

Despite those hiccups, many businesses continue to see the benefits of signing up for cloud services. “Clouds will have downtime – it’s a fundamental issue,” Andi Mann, chief cloud strategy guru at CA Technologies, told eWEEK. “But you need to be ready for downtime, whether it’s your own infrastructure or cloud infrastructure. You need to understand what the risk is. It’s all just about risk management.”

Microsoft and other companies are increasingly “all in” when it comes to cloud services, at least partially as a way to recover revenues lost due to declining sales of hardware and traditional, desktop-bound software. As they progress into the space, each cloud incident offers a learning opportunity to improve their respective services – at least in theory. But at the same time, those incidents may lead businesses (not to mention governments, which seem increasingly interested in the cloud as a cost-saving measure) to take a second, hard look at whether they should wait a bit longer to embrace the cloud.

In the meantime, those very same tech companies are moving full-speed-ahead with their cloud strategies, particularly in the consumer realm. “Starting today, we are launching a new version of the SkyDrive Website,” Omar Shahine, group programme manager for SkyDrive.com, wrote in a June 20 posting on The Windows Blog. “We took advantage of modern browsers and HTML5 to make SkyDrive faster, easier to navigate, and more beautiful for viewing photos.”