‘It had just vanished’ – the shock when tech fails

Natalie Brown and familyNatalie Brown

Natalie Brown had built her blog into a thriving business over the course of a decade, pouring heaps of effort into it. Then it disappeared.

“I felt sick. It kind of slowly dawned on me… that it had just vanished,” says Mrs Brown, a parenting blogger and author of Confessions of a Crummy Mummy.

Her site had been in the hands of cloud hosting provider Gridhost, which shut down in November. Mrs Brown never received notifications about the switch-off because her blog had been set up by a third-party business, which had stopped trading.

And she had no access to the backup for her blog either, since it had also been hosted in the cloud by Gridhost. Days of stress ensued. Many tears flowed.

Cloud computing, in which information and software are stored in faraway data centres and accessed via the internet, is increasingly popular. It allows small businesses, for example, to set up email or data processing facilities without having to maintain their own IT infrastructure.

An attendee demonstrates software during AWS re:Invent 2021, a conference hosted by Amazon Web Services

Getty Images

But when things go wrong, the consequences can be dire. Cloud services can be subject to intermittent outages, or total shutdowns, caused by technical glitches, cyber-security attacks, or even lightning strikes. This is what happens when the cloud bursts.

In Mrs Brown’s case, her blog is a direct source of income. Companies that make parenting products pay her to link to them, or to publish certain content on her blog, for example. “It does literally put food on our table,” says Mrs Brown.

She says Gridhost’s owner tsoHost would not allow her access to her blog data and she was only able to retrieve it after enlisting the help of her former web developer. “He said it took him about six hours negotiating with them,” she recalls.

The blog is now live again on another platform and Mrs Brown has scheduled backups with a separate provider.

A spokesman for tsoHost said the firm attempted to contact customers in advance of Gridhost’s closure and added: “We understand that the decision to retire the Gridhost platform will be disappointing and tsoHost is working closely with customers to support migrations.”

Vili Lehdonvirta of the Oxford Internet Institute and author of Cloud Empires

John Cairns

Using cloud services, by definition, makes a business reliant on a third party, says Vili Lehdonvirta of the Oxford Internet Institute and author of Cloud Empires.

“What is the cloud? Well, the cloud is somebody else’s computer,” he explains.

And cloud bursts are not uncommon. Amazon Web Services, the largest cloud provider in the world, suffered a partial outage in December 2021, affecting thousands of customers.

Plus, cloud services sometimes get turned off, just like Gridhost. Google is retiring its cloud platform IoT Core this August. People have used it to connect smart home devices, among other things.

Data from the Uptime Institute, an advisory organisation, suggests that while the cloud is not getting significantly less reliable overall, high-cost outages are becoming more common. “Over 60% of failures result in at least $100,000 (£82,000) in total losses, up substantially from 39% in 2019,” the Institute says.

Cloud computing is increasingly popular with companies, says Kristina McElheran at the University of Toronto. She and colleagues conduct regular, large-scale surveys of hundreds of thousands of firms in the US. Citing other research, she also notes that the shift to online working during the pandemic has further accelerated cloud adoption.

“The cloud is a game changer for survival, growth and productivity for the young, especially the young and small,” explains Dr McElheran, referring to start-ups. “But this is where the trade-off comes in – they lose control.”

Pokey Bolton, artist and event organiser based in Napa Valley

Indigo Perez

One small business owner who knows this only too well is Pokey Bolton, an artist and event organiser based in Napa Valley, California. In early December 2022, her cloud email provider Rackspace was hit by a ransomware attack, affecting thousands of customers.

“I’m furious,” she says. It came at a particularly sensitive time because early December is when Ms Bolton traditionally takes lots of bookings for her annual craft workshops in January. “That’s my big money maker, it’s key to my business,” she says.

Hundreds of people usually sign up but, having had no email access for several days, she isn’t sure how many registrations might have got lost this year.

Ms Bolton has switched email providers and says she has attempted to close her Rackspace account but hasn’t received written confirmation of this. She is also unsure as to whether hackers accessed her email accounts, which contained some customer data and other sensitive information.

A spokeswoman for Rackspace said the firm had been able to help more than three-quarters of affected customers set up new email services on another platform. “We are proactively reaching out individually to those who still need assistance,” she added.

Rackspace is publishing updates about the situation online.

It is important to remember the many benefits of cloud computing, says Prof Lehdonvirta, particularly when it comes to uptime, a measure of how long a computer system works without failing.

“Despite these high-profile outages… [cloud providers] are able to offer crazy uptimes, which are very difficult to achieve in a smaller scale operation,” he explains. Plus, software running in the cloud can get the latest updates instantly, which should help to keep it secure.

Presentational grey line

Presentational grey line

In general, cloud companies are able to offer very reliable services because they can spread computing across multiple data centres, says Paul Watson, director of the National Innovation Centre for data at Newcastle University.

“What you can do is detect failure of one data centre and switch over to using the resources in another,” he says.

Very few, if any, small or start-up businesses have such capabilities.

Every now and then, a company turns its back on the cloud, though. The chief technology officer of US software firm 37signals recently revealed that his company would be leaving the cloud, partly because of costs but also because of reliability concerns.

Better information on the risk of outages could help businesses make informed choices, notes Dr McElheran. And if the cloud computing industry only becomes less competitive and less reliable over time, policymakers might have to step in to force improvements.

However, despite recent cloud bursts, she adds, “I don’t think we’re there yet.”


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