Are web services really the right answer for small business IT?

A few months ago I moved my home/small business IT to Google Apps. After a few years of running my own servers, it was a big step for me to trust someone else to run it for me but it seems to be working OK… up to a point.

You see, Google may be managing my e-mail, calendar, etc. but they are not backing it up. After all, it’s not very often that you get something for nothing in this world and that’s what I’m paying Google – nothing. So, I needed to find a way to back up my GMail (I have the information on how to do this – I just haven’t finished putting the process in place). Then there’s the migration of my previous Exchange Server data to Google. It’s possible, but painfully slow, using a client application to transfer messages with frequent timeouts (with 10 years’ worth of e-mail to transfer, I’ve given up for the time being – and that’s just for one user).

Software as a service is all very well, backed up with proper service level agreements – but using anything less than that in a business context is really a bit risky.

After all, what happens when that service that you’re paying absolute nothing for stops working?

But it’s really reliable – isn’t it? Yes, undoubtably, Google Apps and competing platforms are reliable but not entirely infallible. And when they fail, you can bet your bottom dollar that it won’t be a good time for you.

Yesterday I was trying to send e-mail from Google Apps Mail (GMail) and I got an HTTP error 500 (server generated error). Today I’ve been having a few problems too – and I’ve had to turn off Calendar and Contacts syncing with my iPhone (where iTunes syncs with Google) because it was hanging… so it seems that all is not well in the part of the cloud where my data sits.

Google Mail server unavailable error

But it’s not exclusively a Google problem. FolderShare is too old - time to upgradeSeeing what Microsoft is doing around Windows Live wave three had made me start to think that maybe I backed the wrong horse until the early hours of this morning, when I sat down at my Mac to be told that the version of Windows Live FolderShare I was using no longer worked and that I should upgrade to Windows Live Sync (just like that, without any warning, although it does seem that some users received an e-mail in advance). Even though I’m really busy at the moment, trying to juggle work (where it’s appraisal season and I need to make sure I hit all of my management’s ill-thought-out-and-not-very-SMART objectives), exam study (MCSE 2003 to MCITP Enterprise Administrator 2008 upgrade), blogging (not much of that happening right now), podcasting (ditto), Christmas preparations, spending some time with my family, etc., etc., I did update to Windows Live Sync… Windows Live Sync is too old too...only to find that the current Mac client also claims to be too old and that I should download a new version from… the place where I downloaded this version from – arghh… (at least it seems I’m not alone).

And so what exactly is my point? Well, my point is that, when I operate the infrastructure, I plan when the upgrades happen – I don’t just sit down at my computer one day to be told that I must upgrade right now to continue using a service. Frankly I could do without this week’s Google Apps problems, Windows Live Sync upgrades, etc. and would rather upgrade at my convenience.

Cloud computing is all very well – but the current wave of web services are not ready for the enterprise and I’m even starting to question whether they are ready for small business IT (at least not without retaining some on premise IT service provision). I’m sure that the chargeable services that Amazon, Microsoft, et al are putting together will change things over time but it’s still early days yet and running a business on free, pre-release software (yes, that’s what a beta is – even if it’s an incessant beta) is probably not a smart idea.

3 thoughts on “Are web services really the right answer for small business IT?


  1. They are … not backing it up?

    Did I read that right? You outsourced the management of your email and calendar to someone who doesn’t back it up?

    Hmm.

    And your access troubles are one reason why my data will stay under my control. What happens when Google decide you owe them money? (Yes, it’s a free service just now, but they could – in theory – decide to “upgrade” it at any time, I’m sure). Or they decide you’re breaking some esoteric small print in their T’s and C’s?

    Does your data all disappear then, or become inaccessible until you’ve appeased the Gods? That could never happen, right?

    Hmm again.

    Maybe I am too cynical but these guys are not in business to do us a favour.

    My data, as I said, will remain with me.


  2. Andrew – you’ve hit the nail on the head.

    The trouble is that most people who decide to use these services don’t realise that they still need to retain some control. The GMail backup thing is just the tip of the iceberg.

    I could afford to lose my e-mail – after all I have a copy of it in each of the clients that sync with the server (although I’d be annoyed if Google lost it for me); but any other data that I store in the cloud is a backup copy – I still have another copy in my possession somewhere – software as a service is certainly no panacea.

    As for Google’s “do no evil” mantra… I expect to see that change over the coming years – as you say they’re not in business to do us a favour (actually, by using their services, we provide them with valuable marketing information to help them with their core business – which is advertising). Those who think of Microsoft as the evil empire right now are looking in the wrong direction – watch out for the big G.

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