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Mail Delivery Problems in Google’s Postini Service

Last week users of Google’s Postini message service experienced a major disruption in mail delivery, something that triggered a flood of email and postings from angry customers. Some started examining other alternatives for mail servers, and Google Postini competitors started touting the reliability of their message services. Although there was no problem with outgoing email per se, incoming email was severely delayed, causing everything from minor irritation among customers to disruption of business activity. One of the worst cases stories was from a legal firm that was unable to obtain a critical email message from a client in time for a trial. Even Google Apps Premier customers, who pay a premium of $50 per year for top-end mail services, experienced the same problems as regular users. .

The problem was compounded by a lack of communication on Google’s part. Many customers sent inquires to the Postini Help Forum, but received no response. Later a Google spokesperson said only that Google was aware of the problem and was trying to fix it. Finally, a Google engineer posted a message of apology to the Postini Help Forum, saying that the delivery rate for mail was back to normal and that no message traffic had been deleted or bounced as the result of the problems.
What is most significant about what happened is that it exposed some of the huge cracks in cloud-based services. Google, the inventor of the “cloud computing” term, champions its cloud services, but certainly did not deal with the problem in its Postini mail services very well. People and organizations keep rushing to capitalize on low cost or free cloud services without considering the downsides of doing so. The biggest downside may be reliance on the Internet. Between every cloud service and customer is a common link—the Internet.
I’m not at all knocking the Internet, but it (when it was the NSFnet) started out without built-in security mechanisms by design. It was originally built to provide free and easy access to users. The notion that individuals would deliberately try to cause interruption or corruption of services was not seriously considered at that time. Users were told to build in their own security if they wanted any. And things are not too different now. What the Internet has become over time is a number of backbones that connect Metropolitan Area Networks (MANs). ICANN, the Internet oversight organization, contracts with various service providers to run the Internet’s root DNS servers; security requirements for these servers are specified in contracts with these providers. But other than that, the Internet is still a gargantuan network without inherent security. Consequently, the Internet is vulnerable to massive attacks launched by determined individuals. If you are still skeptical, please recall the three well-known attempts over the years to take down so many root DNS servers that the Internet would become unusable. Two of these three attempts came very close to succeeding.
One day the Internet will be taken out for a prolonged period of time by a massive distributed denial of service (DDos) attack. A very large number of systems infected with bots will flood the Internet. Multiple Internet Service Provider (ISP) networks will be involved. Gigantic pipes along some parts will be able to move traffic, but volumes of packets to routers will overwhelm them. As a result, links and routers that connect the infrastructure will crash or become unresponsive, and/or legitimate traffic will be disrupted such that the quality of Internet service will become intolerable. This will happen at some point in time—trust me.
The impact of those who rely on cloud services will be catastrophic. Having redundant cloud providers will not help. The amount of loss and disruption will be beyond belief, and a fair share of cloud-reliant companies will go out of business.
So I close with an earlier statement— between every cloud service and customer is a common link—the Internet. Realizing this might make some cloud-frenzied individuals and organizations come back to their senses.

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