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Gmail outage won’t dissuade colleges

Colleges and universities that have outsourced eMail services to Google said the 100-minute Gmail outage on Sept. 1 proved inconvenient for students and professors, but many IT officials maintain Google’s service is superior to campus-run eMail.

Colleges, businesses, and other customers could not access their Gmail accounts for about an hour and half Tuesday after routine server upgrades caused an overload on Google’s routers. "As a result, people couldn’t access Gmail via the web interface because their requests couldn’t be routed to a Gmail server," according to a Sept. 1 Google blog post apologizing to customers for the outage.

Technology officials who have converted campus-wide eMail services to Google’s servers–and some IT administrators who are considering the move–said that despite the recent downtime, Google’s eMail service is more reliable than the competition.

Gmail had a similar outage on Feb. 24, 2008, when eMail was not available for more than two hours during maintenance on the company’s European data centers. In a recent blog post, Ben Treynor, vice president of engineering and site reliability czar for Google, wrote that the company’s uptime remains 99.9 percent. 

"To me, you’re more than likely to find a lot more downtime when you’re running the system yourself," said Doug Darby, director of new media at Austin College in Sherman, Texas, referring to eMail programs run by IT workers on campus. "What service hasn’t been down at one time or another? … Two hours is nothing in the big picture."

Since Gmail has become ubiquitous among college students and adopted by large universities and corporations in recent years, even the smallest glitch can be perceived as an IT tragedy, said Darby, whose school is considering the switch to Gmail.

"It can really get over-magnified," he said.

More than 2,100 students at Spelman College in Atlanta began using Gmail accounts two weeks ago when they returned to campus for the start of the fall semester, after a 50-student pilot program last spring showed a switch to Gmail would be a popular move because many students already used Google’s service. Chandra McCrary, associate vice president of media and IT at Spelman, said the campus’s eMail was down for more than an hour Tuesday, but the hiccup wouldn’t prompt IT decision makers to look for a new eMail provider. 

"More and more colleges are moving to this service, so that was probably why it drew so much attention," McCrary said. "We have no reason to jump ship."

IT officials interviewed by eCampus News said they were satisfied with Google’s response to the downtime, which included an eMail apologizing for the server overload.

"I was pleased with that," said James Langford, director of web integration and programming at Abilene Christian University in Texas, which began converting its campus to Gmail accounts in April 2007. "You can’t deal with someone who never admits a mistake."

Langford said Abilene students and faculty have found Google eMail to be reliable, and he agreed with other IT officials that Gmail’s popularity makes downtime seem disastrous. A quick Twitter search during the outage showed Langford how immediate the worldwide reaction was.

"You start to realize the breadth of how many people are concerned about it," he said. "It has such high visibility that people notice right away, of course. … We still have better uptime than running our own mail server."

The Google blog said efforts to avoid server overload include "increasing request router capacity well beyond peak demand to provide headroom."

The blog continued: "Some of the actions are more subtle–for example, we have concluded that request routers don’t have sufficient failure isolation (i.e., if there’s a problem in one data center, it shouldn’t affect servers in another data center) and do not degrade gracefully (e.g., if many request routers are overloaded simultaneously, they all should just get slower instead of refusing to accept traffic and shifting their load)."


Gmail blog

Spelman College

Austin College

Abilene Christian University

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