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Unreliable consumer cloud providers could cause problems in the enterprise

Consumer-grade appliances are receiving below-grade service, and that could soon become an issue for businesses.

The Cloud! The Cloud! It’s hard to go anywhere and not hear about the cloud. I see cloud ads in airports, malls, and while driving down highways and listening to morning sports talk radio. And why not? The cloud solves all problems, right? Low cost, high availability - it’s great, right? Well, not if the cloud provider doesn’t have the right processes and in place to ensure the customers are protected. I’ll give you an example.

This week, my wife Christine went into her Comcast Xfinity email through the web client (she only uses the web client) and all of her email prior to July 10th of this year was gone. She’s had this account for over eight years and had thousands of messages between her inbox and sent mail folder. I called Comast’s customer support and explained the problem and, after getting a bunch of ridiculous questions, the “customer service” person explained to me that this happens from time to time. I asked the Comcast person why that happens, and she assured me that it happens to all hosted mail providers, citing Hotmail, MSN and, I believe, Gmail.

After determining the mail was gone permanently, the customer service person gave me some, what I assumed to be, best practices regarding email usage. The first best practice was that we need to notify Comcast of missing mail within 24 hours, which from the sounds of it is their back-up window so anything older is over written.

I find the email provider’s shift of responsibility to the consumer troubling. I imagine Comcast may treat this as adequate support for a free service, but between Internet and cable TV alone, our Comcast bill is well over $300 per month, so I certainly don’t see it as a free service. The second piece of advice was to forward all important emails to another service, such as MSN or Google. In my opinion, there are two things wrong with this statement. The first is that if indeed ALL email providers lose email, then what’s the point of forwarding my mail to an alternate provider? However, if the alternate provider doesn’t lose emails, they why use Comcast at all?

After going through this experience, it made me think about this world of the consumerized cloud we live in. Cloud providers, even consumer-oriented ones, need to take some level of responsibility to handle situations like this better. Later, I found out that my mother-in-law, who lives just a few miles from us, also lost all of her emails, so it appears Comcast had some sort of email server problem (note to Comcast: Buy an F5 box and create redundant servers). But there was no notification to any customer. Proactive notification, even of something bad, generally helps.

For consumers and workers, beware of the consumer tools. While they provide seemingly great and more flexible alternatives to work tools, there is some risk. I recently did some work with a company that polled its workers to see how many employees used their personal email as a complementary work tool, and the majority of workers said that they did. Much of it was for travel and other merchandise purchased at home, or when research was being done for specific work-related topics. Understand that if something happens to the data in consumer systems, it’s lost forever, whereas the IT department backs up the corporate systems.

The trend toward consumer devices and applications is now an unstoppable force and, for the most part, that’s a good thing. Companies and workers, though, do need to understand the risks associated with it, as consumer-grade applications beget consumer-level service, or no service, as was the case with Comcast.

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