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SalesForce outages show SaaS customers largely at "mercy" of providers

SalesForce's two recent outages point to difficulties in preparing for SaaS outages compared to IaaS, analysts say

By , Network World
July 19, 2012 11:31 AM ET

Network World - Software as a service (SaaS) applications are generally more difficult to prepare disaster recovery plans for compared to infrastructure as a service (IaaS) offerings, analyst and consultants say. And given the recent example of two SalesForce.com outages in as many weeks, it's a topic they say customers don't generally pay enough attention to.

SalesForce is the poster child of the SaaS cloud, with its CRM and platform as a service (PaaS) offering named Heroku and Force.com. On the morning of June 28 a newly discovered software bug caused what the company called a "rare dual failure" in both its storage tier and secondary active standby storage tier, resulting in shared memory corruption and some customers not being able to access their SalesForce systems for as long as five hours. On July 10, manual upgrades at a West Coast data center the company rents space in resulted in a power failure, knocking out service to some customers for two days.

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Outages on the IaaS side, from providers such as Amazon Web Services, are occasional and there are a variety of tips for how customers can prepare for them.

But John Morency, a disaster recovery analyst at Gartner, says there are fundamental differences between SaaS and IaaS applications that makes apps like SalesForce much harder to create a disaster-recovery plan around compared to Amazon.

"In SaaS, the provider is the keeper of the entire application stack," he says. "Management, backup, recovery, you're really at their mercy."

In a SaaS environment, he says, the provider - in this case SalesForce.com - manages almost the entire system for its customers, from the infrastructure all the way to the application. That means customers have less ability to tinker with the application and the underlying infrastructure it runs on to make it more highly available. In an IaaS environment, the provider is just supplying the underlying compute or storage hardware while the customer is responsible, in most cases, for the applications running on the infrastructure.

So what are SaaS customers to do?

A basic rule of thumb is for customers to do their homework, Morency says. Know what your SaaS provider's service-level agreement (SLA) ensures for uptime and make determinations of how tolerant your organization would be of downtime. "Before making contractual commitments to any SaaS provider, ensure that you have a complete understanding of the recovery management procedures and managed service levels," he says.

If downtime is not an option, there is a growing industry around recovery as a service (Raas), which are cloud-based systems that provide backups of virtual machines, data and applications. There are more than 50 providers in this space now, Morency says, ranging from big-name IaaS providers such as Amazon, Microsoft, Terremark and Sunguard, to other players such as Bluelock, Hosting.com and HP, along with others. These providers work with customers to create customized backup solutions, mostly on the IaaS side, but sometimes on the SaaS side as well, Morency says.

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