The promise of the cloud is a permanently streaming service over the internet like electricity over the distribution grid. But sometimes the cloud has the equivalent of a blackout, as Microsoft did last week for North American users of its cloud productivity suite, Office 365.
So what happens to your Office 365 service when it goes down?
One of Microsoft’s selling points against Google and its competitor Google Apps is that you can still work on your documents offline because you still have a copy of Microsoft Office 365 on your desktop.
Unlike Google Apps, Office 365 users can create documents in Word, Excel, PowerPoint and other applications within the desktop version of Microsoft Office and continue working on them until Microsoft’s data centre comes back online.
Thanks to versioning control built into SharePoint Online, which provides document management for Office 365, there is a framework for adding changes made to one document by several users at different times.
Office 365 users can still read emails in their desktop email client which have already downloaded from Microsoft’s data centre, and they can write new emails too.
That’s everything you can do.
What you can't do when Office 365 goes down
Unfortunately it may not be enough for some businesses. During an outage Office 365 users can’t access documents stored on SharePoint Online. If there is no locally saved copy then there’s nothing they can do about it but wait.
Also Office 365 users are essentially “off the air”. Each user operates within the silo of their desktop and laptop, and can’t even email colleagues on the same internal network. All emails need to travel to the Office 365 data centre first.
The same goes for instant message, voice and video conferencing through the Lync Online tool. This is not as serious as it could be. In a year or two many businesses will start ditching a separate phone system and running all their calls (even to the public PSTN network) through Lync Online. An outage in that scenario would mean no phone calls and no emails. That’s no good.
The best option?
Businesses running Small Business Server may be thinking twice about ditching their server to go to the cloud. Microsoft is soon to release a cut-down version of SBS called Small Business Server Essentials [Correction: SBS Essentials is already available. The plugin that syncs Essentials to Office 365 is yet to come out] that is a pretty effective hedge against any more cloud outages.
SBS Essentials is integrated very closely with Office 365. All email is stored in the cloud but Essentials keeps a local copy of your SharePoint Online files so that even if Microsoft’s data centre goes down you still have access to all your business data.
There are few alternatives for businesses that have already moved to the cloud. Many Australian service providers offer hosted Exchange, but they are still vulnerable to outages too and are likely to have much smaller data centres than Microsoft.
If you count the hours of downtime in your business when the server on premise falls over, needs rebooting or a hard drive fails, the guaranteed uptime from Microsoft and other cloud vendors is pretty attractive.
Two things are worth noting. First, the outage on August 17 only affected email and calendar, according to ZDNet’s Mary Jo Foley
. Users were still able to access all their files on SharePoint Online and communicate with each other through Lync Online.
Second, Office 365 has only been live since June 28. The cloud will only get more reliable and secure over time.
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About Sholto Macpherson
With 10 years of experience as a journalist, Sholto Macpherson has written extensively about IT for business. Sholto specialises in cloud computing and how it can help small businesses save time running their IT. His web site www.BoxFreeIT.com.au helps small businesses find cloud computing services.