Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Day(s) the Email Went Out

Recently, one of my main email providers experienced three outages in the same week. Luckily, one was from about 6 to 7:45 a.m., so it didn't affect too many people during normal business hours. But the other two outages affected users for four more hours each time.

About a decade ago, I observed that email had become more vital to people than the telephone.

Businesses rely on email for general communications, sending contracts, certificates and other time-sensitive information.

The expectation is that email will arrive in minutes.

So when email stops flowing, things get ugly.

Business can grind to a halt. Stories that were relayed to me included frustrated customers that felt people were ignoring them, interviews that were missed and deadlines weren't met.

The fact is that systems fail. Whether it be an organization, a person or a technology.

Some of us may remember when we had the huge power outage here in the Northeast a few years ago. That's a major system failure.

There are times that dams break or even someone forgets to file a needed document. All system failures.

We expect that systems in place won't fail. By and large, here in the United States, the systems we have work pretty well.

So when a system fails, we have to figure out what "Plan B" is.

But regarding email systems, all of the major providers have had systems outages: Google's Gmail, Yahoo!'s Mail and Microsoft. All provide both free and paid email and all have had major outages.

Having email in-house is also no guarantee of 100 percent up-time. Companies that host their own email still have outages, but also have the ability to create systems that put servers in different data centers and geographies that are customized to their needs and mitigate their risks. Typically you don't read in the press about in-house email systems going down.

Most of us would never think of hosting our own email system. It's too costly and too much work. And, if you have Internet service through a local provider such as AT&T or Cablevision, they include a handful of free email accounts.

So how do you deal with systems that eventually will go down? My suggestion is to have an alternative available. For example, if you're using Gmail as your primary account, also have a Yahoo! or Cablevision account that will let you at least notify colleagues and friends of the outage.

With alternate accounts, although your work may be delayed, at least you will be available and can continue to function if even at a reduced level of activity.

Mark Mathias, a 30-plus year veteran of information technology and a resident of Westport, Connecticut, was named by Computerworld magazine to their inaugural list of “Premier 100 IT Leaders.” This column was originally published in the Westport News on Wednesday 18 May 2011.
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Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Living UnWired

It seems that no matter where I go and no matter what I'm doing, I'm always in touch with someone else. Between smartphones that can send and receive email and texts pretty much wherever I am, it's hard to not be available.

As humans, we're all social, albeit at different points on a continuum. But sometimes I like to be left alone.

My last column discussed how we can now obtain Internet service on airplanes, once considered the last bastion of Internet isolation. That has now crumbled.

Many campers and backpackers still find that they can obtain a mobile phone signal in the less-populated areas and that you really have to go far afield before your phone signal is non-existent.

But being connected or disconnected is my choice.

Often for my work, I need to stay connected in order to support customers or other needs that arise outside of regular business hours. Other times, I want to be able to communicate with family and friends. All this is good.

But there are times when I really just want to be alone or with a group of others and not have distractions. No computers, no mobile phones, no texting. Just spend time that doesn't include a glowing screen.

I spent this past weekend at Heifer International's Overlook Farm in Massachusetts. While they had some nominal Internet access, I can't say I tried hard to get it to work and spent the bulk of the weekend with the church group with which I came.

I really liked it.

In talking to one of the other group leaders, we discussed how some communities regularly have "technology-free weeks" where they turn off the TVs, TiVos, Wiis, XBOX 360s, mobile phones, computers and more.

Instead, the families go for walks, play baseball, go swimming, read a book, have dinner together, go for a hike, clean up the house, fix stuff, whatever they do that doesn't involve technology.

While our technology allows us to communicate and connect as we never have before, it also distracts us from ways in which we as humans really communicate and connect -- in person.

It's often easy to disconnect when we physically go to a geography where the services that connect us aren't available. Yet, it is our choice whether we wish to use these services when we're in our own homes.

I, for one, will work with my family to have "technology-free" weekends, even if we're just hanging around the house. I'm looking forward to reconnecting with my family and friends in a way that may be unfamiliar to some, yet rewarding to all.

Mark Mathias, a 30-plus year veteran of information technology and a resident of Westport, Connecticut, was named by Computerworld magazine to their inaugural list of “Premier 100 IT Leaders.” This column was originally published in the Westport News on Wednesday 4 May 2011.