Lessons Learned from Google’s temporary Gmail loss
March 1st, 2011 by Isaiah Beard

GMail kept users notified through a status page of their ongoing recovery efforts.

This past week offered up a little dose of panic to an estimated tens of thousands of users to Google’s free Gmail service, when they logged in to discover that all of their e-mail was missing.  According to Google:

We released a storage software update that introduced the unexpected bug, which caused 0.02% of Gmail users to temporarily lose access to their email. When we discovered the problem, we immediately stopped the deployment of the new software and reverted to the old version.

0.02% may not sound like much, but with an estimated 193 million users, that means that close to 39,000 of them had to briefly cope with the unpleasant possibility of losing thousands of e-mails, that could span several years for some of GMail’s earliest adopters.  In fact, some sources put the estimate of affected users somewhat higher.

To their credit, Google is working on the problem and insists that all e-mail for everyone affected will be restored by the end of the day.  How? Google uses tape backups to archive the contents of your Gmail account, which is their assurance against data loss.  Still, Google’s web-based applications, including e-mail, are the primary experience most users have with a type of service offering known as Cloud Computing.  And a threat of users losing important data stored on the Cloud is understandably casting doubt on the confidence of users in this type of offering.

From a data curation perspective, this is an important event.  Although in the end no harm was done, this incident illustrates how willing most users are to fully trust an online service with data they feel is important, and even critical to their personal histories, without giving a thought to what’s being done to keep that information safe.  Most Gmail users – or users of Facebook, Yahoo, Microsoft Live, or Flickr (which had its own high-profile data loss recently) – aren’t aware of what kinds of backup plans, if any, are put in place by these service providers.  And it’s likely that few of them have made backups of their own.

So, what can we learn from this experience?  A few things…

  1. The cloud isn’t perfect.
    Contrary to  what Microsoft would like us to believe (illustrated in the video above), the Cloud isn’t a magical place that solves every media problem.  In fact, it’s not a whole lot more complex than the computer equipment that sits on your desk.  The Cloud is little more than a bank of servers with lots of storage located in datacenters in (sometimes) remote locations, connected by high speed internet. And much like what sits on your desk, that equipment will eventually suffer errors and failures.  In most cases, there are plenty of backup and redundant systems in place to keep these failures from being noticed.  But once a while – much like what we saw this week – a perfect storm can brew that causes one of those incidents to get very, very public.
  2. Making backups is still a very good idea
    Although Google (thankfully) maintains their own backups, people should still keep in mind that services such as Gmail are offered to the public for free.  Although Google would have earned some very bad publicity had they not restored the lost data, there really isn’t any agreement or guarantee between Google and most of its users to protect any content that they store for you.  As a result, the responsibility for keeping your data intact still falls on you, the user. 

    Fortunately, Google does offer basic instructions on how to use common desktop programs to make local backup copies of your e-mail.  Other tech sites are also joining the fray with more detailed descriptions and alternatives.

    Definitely consider this week’s events a warning… if it’s important to you, then it’s time to back up your mail.

  3. GMail does make backups of their data… which could be good news and bad news.
    The good news: most people didn’t realize it, but Google does have a backup plan for the media you store on their servers.
    The bad news:  most people didn’t realize that Google does back up the media you store on their servers. 

    How can this be both good and bad?

    For those solely concerned about the longevity of their e-mails, this is a good thing.  Google is making an effort to preserve the content that users generate and store, for free, on their platform.

    For those who are concerned about their privacy, on the other hand, this could be a very bad thing.  We now know that Google uses tapes as a backup medium.  What we don’t know: How long are those tapes kept, and where?  Are those tapes transported off-site?And if so, are they encrypted to protect against the risk of theft in transit? And if someone deliberately deletes e-mails from their GMail account, are those deleted e-mails still kept on tape somewhere?  If so, for how long?

    For most people though, the prospect of Google backing up their e-mails is a mixed blessing: nice to know they take steps to keep the data guarded against loss, but the unanswered questions might lead that same user to be concerned about potentially sensitive personal data (e.g. links to bank statements) being stored in an unknown medium, for an unknown period of time.



This event should be seen as an opportunity for users of Cloud services – Gmail, Google Apps, Mobile Me, Live, Yahoo, Flickr, Facebook, and even more complex business offerings – to reflect on how important that stored data is to them, and what impact it would have on their lives if that content were lost.  This isn’t to say the Cloud shouldn’t be used or trusted – quite the contrary; it seems that Cloud providers are taking the importance of that data and its integrity seriously.  But, that’s not always enough.  Users of the Cloud need to be sure that they are well-informed about how safe their content is… and if they have doubts, some simple backup procedures to non-cloud media should do the trick.

This is also a time to extra-mindful of the implications of storing your content on the Cloud, and what that means to risks to your privacy.  Perhaps it’s time to call upon these service providers to be more transparent about what actions they take to secure not only the integrity of the data they store, but the privacy of their backups as well.

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