Saturday, March 7, 2015

Email outage...

Email outage...  Yesterday our family email (which is hosted by GMail) was down for close to 24 hours.  The symptoms were that we stopped receiving any new mail, and the URL we normally used to access our mail stopped working (though the default GMail URL still worked).  If you're the geekly sort, you probably immediately said “DNS problem!”, and in fact that's what it was.  Once that got resolved, our missed emails started trickling in, much to the general relief of my family members.

Two observations from this experience:

First, how dependent on email (and the Internet, more generally) we've become!  Our email has become one of the rhythms in our lives – we expect certain emails to arrive at certain times of the day, and when they don't arrive, it feels like a major disconnection – a bit like the power going out, or the road to your house being shut down.  Some of my family members, when reporting the outage, had a distinct tinge of, well, panic in their voices.  In actual fact, it's nothing so vital (though for my sister, who uses email in her business, a bit more so).  Nevertheless, when it's cut off, we don't like it.  Not. One. Little. Bit.

Second, how amazingly reliable email has become.  My family has been using this (free!) GMail service for about ten years now.  In all that time, we've only had a couple of short outages.  We access our email from the web on multiple browsers, from email “fat clients” (like Mozilla's Thunderbird), from iPads, and from smart phones.  Wherever we are, whenever we want it, however we want to access it – it just works.  This reliability is in marked contrast to the self-hosted Microsoft Exchange email server that I maintained for roughly ten years prior to that.  That beast would go down about once a week, and sometimes it took hours of troubleshooting (by me!) to get it back up again.  I lived in fear of updates to that server, because about one in four of them would knock it offline.  Contrast that with our GMail experience: I spend zero time managing the service, and it just always works.  Well, almost always.  Google deserves a great deal of credit for building such a reliable system.  Such things do not happen by accident!

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