Chaos for home workers after Gmail crash
Five-hour outage raises concerns that the UK is too exposed to a small number of technology giants
LEGIONS of home workers and anxious GCSE pupils were hit by a Gmail meltdown yesterday, stoking fears that the coronavirus boom in remote business has left Britain dangerously reliant on a handful of tech companies. Google’s G Suite – which includes the Gmail email service as well as Google Drive, Google Chat, Google Docs and Google Meet – was plagued with issues from around 6am in what experts said was its worst ever outage.
The tech titan said it had restored services to users by 12.10pm. But in the meantime the failure wreaked havoc on employees trying to do their jobs remotely, as well as nervous children forced to wait for their GCSE results.
Data from tracker site DownDetector showed the thousands of outages were concentrated in the UK, Greece, Spain, Germany, France, Japan and Malaysia. Those affected were unable to log on, upload files or send emails.
Derek McAuley, professor of digital economy at the University of Nottingham, said the episode highlights how dependent the country has become on a small number of tech businesses that wield enormous power.
He said: “The issue is where everyone becomes dependent (on a single service), a whole sector can grind to a halt.
“But this doesn’t happen when you have a more competitive and partitioned marketplace.”
Gmail is the world’s biggest email service, with around 1.8bn users.
Its G Suite services have surged in popularity in lockdown with thousands of businesses signing up.
The company is likely to play an increasingly vital role in business life as employees abandon the traditional nine-to-five. With normal face to face communication in the office impossible, blackouts pose an ever greater risk.
The cause of the outage is unclear, but it was speculated that glitches in updates to the firm’s cloud service may have been to blame. It also coincided with the first day back at school for millions of US children, many of whom use Google products to learn remotely.
Technicians from the company are expected to reveal full details of what went wrong in coming days.
There is no suggestion problems were caused by a hack, but consultants said the failure none the less highlighted the risks if attackers are able to take down key email systems.
Google apologised for the inconvenience and thanked users for their patience. It said: “System reliability is a top priority at Google. We are making continuous improvements to make our systems better.”
Jake Moore, a cybersecurity specialist at IT firm Eset, said there had been concerns about a Google failure for many years.
He said: “As we all learn from mistakes, it does elevate a concern as to why this outage was not able to withstand such a force to knock it over and affect so many end users.”
If the internet is our information superhighway, yesterday’s mass outage of Google services represents the sudden and total closure of the M25. Users up and down the country who rely on the system for their livelihoods found themselves confronted with the simple Gmail message: “Oops, something went wrong”. It was the digital equivalent of the Road Closed sign.
Such is the public and private sector’s dependence on software services provided by Google and its rivals Amazon, Microsoft and Alibaba that the five-hour outage will likely be felt at GDP level. Never mind the frustration felt by hundreds of thousands of homeworkers, think of all the lost opportunities from meetings unattended, the lost confidence from work unsent and the lost productivity from reduced output.
It all adds up: a temporary internet shutdown costs an advanced economy like Britain’s $141m (£107m) per day, according to a report from Deloitte and Facebook into the economic impact of disruptions to connectivity. That’s equivalent to 1.9pc of daily GDP. A big hit, especially in a recession when companies small and large are fighting for their lives and public services are stretched to the limit.
As a provider of big data software, I’m sometimes asked if the UK’s reliance on so-called cloud computing is a weakness. Actually, having access to enormous computing power at a fraction of the cost is a strength. It enables businesses and organisations to transform themselves for the digital age and scale up their products and services. Without cloud computing, it would be impossible to work at home during the pandemic. Then our economy really would have fallen off a cliff. The problem here is with resilience. Every computing system has outages and they happen all the time. Some are planned, usually for weekends, and some unplanned, usually by accident. The issue is how long a system can be down – recovery time objective – and how much data can be lost – recovery point objective – without significant damage to the application, not to mention reputation. Take British Airways and its recent history of IT failures: the flag carrier has suffered a series of outages causing chaos and cancellations for customers.
When we dealt in small quantities of data, outages didn’t matter so much. In the new world, we are generating unimaginably large amounts of data through widespread use of technology in every aspect of our lives. Unfortunately, big data also means big outages. When cloud providers say they can guarantee against outages 99.99pc of the time, it might sound impressive but the cost of marginal error becomes substantial. Big tech firms could, and should, be guaranteeing durability of at least 99.99999pc.
The solution to this problem of leaky plumbing is what we call geo-redundancy. This means the ability of applications to “fail over” to exact replicas of data stored in entirely different physical locations. My company, WANdisco, is providing these services to international airlines, supermarkets and healthcare providers as they move core operational infrastructure to the cloud.
Like it or not, the cloud is here to stay. It is big business. The market is estimated to be worth $371bn this year and is set to reach $832bn by 2025, according to analysts. In the second quarter alone, the cloud generated $3bn in revenue for Google, up from $2.7bn in the same period last year.
Commenting on the figures, Sundar Pichai, chief executive of parent company Alphabet, said: “We’re working to help people, businesses and communities in these uncertain times.”
For Google’s 2bn-plus users, yesterday was especially uncertain. According to outage tracker site DownDetector, the problems began around 6am BST with widespread disruption reported on Gmail, Google Drive, Google Chat, Google Docs and Google Meet. The outages were believed to be concentrated in the UK, Greece, Spain, Germany, France, Japan and Malaysia. In a statement,
‘I’m asked if the UK reliance on the cloud is a weakness. Actually, it is a strength. The issue here is resilience’
Google apologised for the inconvenience and thanked users for their patience and continued support. “System reliability is a top priority at Google. We are making continuous improvements to make our systems better,” added the Silicon Valley giant.
The onset of coronavirus has been a catalyst for change in the way we live and work. It has accelerated the adoption of technology across the public and private sectors. Home working is becoming accepted as a norm and productivity is increasing as a result, certainly in the experience of my company and many business leaders I speak with. We all rely on the cloud to continue to deliver goods and services to our customers. As road users, we accept the need for roadworks and essential maintenance. But we don’t expect the sudden and total closure of the entire motorway.
Google’s five-hour disruption yesterday was concentrated in the UK, Greece, Spain, Germany, France, Japan and Malaysia