I love downtime

Nothing frustrates people more than a website going down at the same time they’re in need of it’s services. Just look to twitter when Media Temple or Gmail experience unavailability; people lose their cool. Twitter was down so much that it accidentally popularized their growing pains via the fail whale.

I look at downtime a little differently, though. When I see all the hundreds of millions of WordPress.com blogs disappear for two hours, I think to myself “let’s see how they handle this.” I breathe a sigh of relief when I read that WordPress.com was able to recover from a catastrophic failure costing millions of lost pageviews (read: revenue). In other words, there’s a service provider that can come back from downtime and I have no questions about whether they can handle a similar incident in the future.

Performing regular backups is not enough. When magnolia admitted to not having backups of it’s users bookmarks, people were rightfully upset. But, even if they had been saved, would there have been a there a process in place to restore the data? Would service be restored in a timely manner? Even more, has the data ever been tested for recoverability or just thrown on a disk or into the cloud assuming everything is all set in case of emergency?

When I see pinboard, my favorite bookmarking service, take a spill twice in two weeks I rest peacefully. I go to sleep knowing that Maciej has a hot backup server that he can quickly switch to and continue running with just a few minutes of downtime. I love that. No data will be lost, just a hiccup in the day. One hiccup that, if it were to happen yet again, could easily be handled.

Of course, my data is portable in many of these cases. I can extract it at any time and back it up however I choose. There’s no reason to rely on my service provider. But, that’s really not the point of portability. Even though there may be no service agreement, you’re using a service with some (perhaps incorrect) assumptions that it will always be there and always work. Perhaps that’s an issue with free services, they need not provide any guarantee.

But even the services we pay heavily for: our web hosts, the photo storage sites, the hosted project management tools. Some of these sites and services have gone on untested and unproven. I’m a little more wary of what might happen if something unforeseen happens to them. Could flickr recover from an issue and maintain my priceless photos and memories. Could my business still operate if 37signals went down? Am I paying them for any guarantee of restored service? I honestly don’t know. Even web hosts store backups, but that snapshot may have included the virus that originally took your site down… that’s no help.

I love downtime because it shows me how a provider will handle an adverse situation both in and out of their control.

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