The Pain of Being Down and Out

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A necessary evil for many online businesses is having service outages so they can perform scheduled maintenance. For most companies, this is pretty dull stuff that few, if anyone, notices.

There are times, however, when routine maintenance is far from routine. Twitter discovered this the hard way earlier this week when scheduled maintenance to upgrade its infrastructure went terribly astray. In the process, Twitter’s goodwill took a major hit at a time when it is starting to be embraced as the hot new communications tool.

Whether Twitter fell victim to its own success or simply was unprepared is neither here nor there, although Twitter’s hosting provider, Joyent, has been released of its duties.

More important is how Twitter handled the maintenance crisis. Truth be told, it didn’t do well – leaving many users extremely, well, pissed. (Here’s a we’re-really-sorry blog post by Twitter’s Evan Williams.)

Twitter may have failed another major goodwill test but few companies really handle unexpected service outages well. Another example is Performancing Metrics, which saw a 24-hour maintenance cycle last nearly four days.

It wasn’t so much that the online statistics service was down as much as the cavalier attitude the company seemed to have for its customers. After the 24 hour-perod expired, there were no apologies, no offers to make up for it in some way, no detailed explanation about what happened. Not impressive.

There’s no lack of competition in every online market. Customers can empathize when things stop working. But if they happen too often or without a company being straightforward about what’s happening, you can lose goodwill and customers pretty quickly.

More: VentureBeat talks about how Twitter’s problems are impacting other Twitter-related companies, while Dave Winer wonders why Twitter keeps going down. TechCrunch has an intriguing post that Twitter’s problems may be linked to a move to a new host called Verio, which is owned by Japan’s NTT, which could be making an investment in Twitter.

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  • Chris Schmitt

    My first response to your post was: what the heck! Twitter down – the world has ended! Wait a sec, isn’t Twitter a social networking site? The way people are reacting you would think the ATM network went down for 24 hours.

    But than I thought, for you Twitter is a business tool. When Twitter goes down, your productivity declines. In a somewhat strange way, the same could be said for people that use Twitter strictly as a social networking tool – productivity declines. Users begin ask, “Maybe it’s time to find another tool?”.

    Last week Basecamp “crashed”: for about 2-hours in the middle of the day. It was caused by one piece of equipment failing. The same lame explanations, no follow-up.

    The point is there are a huge number of very useful web apps being hosted by companies that have a lot to learn about building a mission critical application infrastructure. These application providers and hosting companies need to get their act together soon. Otherwise serious businesses will have to continue to run Microsoft crap on their own infrastructure.

  • Geoff

    My how the times, they are a-changin’!

    People are up in arms because something that they pay absolutely nothing to use is unavailable for less than 24 hours.

    If it’s mission critical, don’t use a “beta” product that acknowledges growing pains.

    And as for apologies and transparency, if there is indeed a move to new hosting as a result of investment activity, chances are good that NDA’s are in the mix as well.

    Folks need to calm down. Of course, that’s not just true for the on-line community…

  • Mark Evans

    Geoff: Good points all around.

    Chris: One thing about your comment that struck was how hosting has evolved into a commodity business that no one talks about when, in reality, it’s a critical part of how online businesses operate. There’s so much focus on price as opposed to service. Maybe examples such as 37Signals and Twitter will get people to re-think their hosting strategies.