Google Apps Customers Miffed Over Downtime

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Google Inc. is having problems keeping its uptime pledge to some paying customers of its Google Apps suite of hosted services, throwing into question the company's ability to offer guaranteed levels of application reliability.

Little over a month after introducing Google Apps' Premier version, which includes a 99.99 percent uptime commitment, Google is failing to meet that service level agreement (SLA) for an undetermined number of customers.

"Google has not met its SLA with me, that's correct," Grant Cummings, an IT professional from Ohio and Premier customer, wrote in an e-mail interview.

On Tuesday, Google Apps' Gmail service suffered significant availability problems that began in the morning (U.S. Eastern Time) and were declared officially solved for all users early Wednesday afternoon. The problems also affected Gmail users who aren't on Google Apps.

Prudential Preferred Properties, a real estate firm in Chicago, was also affected: a handful of its about 500 users couldn't access their e-mail for several hours on Tuesday, said Camden Daily, Prudential's director of technology, in a phone interview.

The company moved from the Standard to the Premier edition several weeks ago and has been happy with the suite, but hopes that the Gmail problems don't become chronic, because the incident was disruptive for the agents affected, he said.

"I assume yesterday's problems are part of the growing pains. But if it continues to be an issue, that's not something we can live with," Daily said. E-mail is a crucial tool in the real estate industry, because agents need to send and receive time-sensitive documents like closing statements to do their jobs, he said.

Should a problem like this affect Prudential again, Daily wants Google to be quick in alerting him about it, before his users start complaining to him. On Tuesday, Google sent him an alert hours after the problem hit the company, which doesn't help Daily respond to his users. "I want Google to tell me there are problems. I don't want to have to be asking Google if something is happening," Daily said.

This was at least the third significant Gmail downtime incident this month for Google Apps customers, most of whom are small businesses and universities. In all cases, the problems affected an undisclosed number of Premier users, as well as those on the free Standard and Education versions.

"Work all but stopped for us yesterday for an entire afternoon, and there was no explanation that I could give my clients, except e-mail was down and I do not know when it is going to be back," David Lusky, owner of BluSKY Designs LLC in Nashville, Tennessee, wrote in an e-mail interview.

After using the Standard version for a month, BluSKY has suffered about eight hours of downtime. "The product itself is great, but the reliability issue is a real concern," wrote Lusky, one of four Google Apps users in the company.. Depending on how things go with the Standard version, the company may move later to the Premier version.

Meanwhile, Cummings, who uses Google Apps for two domains where he has the sites Nasal Passages and Ay-Ziggy-Zoomba, has experienced hours-long Gmail outages twice in recent weeks.

To add to the frustration, the higher support level his Premier status affords him, such as phone assistance, has been underwhelming. "I have called Google support and, while they've been very cheerful, easily accessible and friendly, they have been pretty much useless," Cummings wrote. "A little more information for the paying customers as opposed to not deviating from the generic canned responses would be appreciated."

Brian J.S. Miller, a provider of Web design and Web hosting services in Michigan, is on the Standard version, but expects that when he upgrades to Premier, Google will be able to honor its uptime commitment. "Yes, I was affected [by Tuesday's Gmail downtime]. It was a big problem. I was very disappointed," Miller, who is otherwise happy with Google Apps, wrote in an e-mail interview.

Google's introduction in February of the Premier edition, which costs US$50 per user per year, generated much attention, as many saw it as yet another concrete step in the company's march toward a direct confrontation with Microsoft Corp. in the market for productivity and collaboration applications where Microsoft Office reigns. Google's hosted, software-as-a-service approach contrasts with Microsoft's traditional packaged software model.

Many view the hosted model as the future of application delivery, pointing out that it saves users from the complexity of installing and maintaining software on their machines, because providers house the applications in their data centers. However, the benefits don't amount to much if the applications are unavailable.

To make up for the first major Gmail incident, which occurred March 1, Google extended Premier customers' contracts at no extra charge. Another Gmail problem hit on March 12.

Early Wednesday afternoon, a Google spokesman wrote in an e-mail that "a number of Gmail users have had difficulty accessing their accounts and sending mail over the past day. We have now resolved the problem, and we apologize for the inconvenience this may have caused."

Google is currently offering customers the opportunity to try the Premier edition for free until the end of April.

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