Why We Don’t Need “Five 9s” Network Reliability Anymore

by on September 3, 2009 · 5 comments

Interesting piece by Farhad Manjoo of Slate today entitled “So Gmail Was Down. Get Over It.” Manjoo notes that Google’s Gmail service went down briefly this week — for an hour and a half — and that led to a lot of people “freaking out” over the downtime. He asks” “Google’s e-mail service works 99.9 percent of time. Why do we freak out during the other 0.1 percent?”

That’s an good question, but I actually didn’t hear all that many people bitching about it this time around. In fact, I am rather surprised how little I heard about this incident. I think that’s because many of us are gradually growing accustomed to a world in which communications networks and digital devices deliver something less than the holy grail of “five 9s” uptime.  That was the standard for telephony and computing in the world I grew up in: 99.999% was the magic number that network engineers aspired to and that many of us in the public generally demanded.

Today, however, we settle for something less.  As Manjoo’s piece about Gmail suggests, we’ll settle “three 9s,” as in 99.9% reliability.  And sometimes we’ll settle for far less than that. Why is that?  I think Robert Capps has part of the answer in his recent Wired essay, “The Good Enough Revolution: When Cheap and Simple Is Just Fine.” Capps points out the modern Digital Age has seen the “triumph of what might be called Good Enough tech.  Cheap, fast, simple tools are suddenly everywhere.” He continues:

So what happened? Well, in short, technology happened. The world has sped up, become more connected and a whole lot busier. As a result, what consumers want from the products and services they buy is fundamentally changing. We now favor flexibility over high fidelity, convenience over features, quick and dirty over slow and polished. Having it here and now is more important than having it perfect. These changes run so deep and wide, they’re actually altering what we mean when we describe a product as “high-quality.”  And it’s happening everywhere.

I think that much is obvious. The triumph of “Good Enough” can be seen most notably in how we make phone calls today. Whether its the cell phone call that breaks up or drops out mid conversation, or the Skype call that sounds like two tin cans connected by string, the bottom line is we settle for something far less reliable today than we did in the past. When I was a kid growing up in rural Illinois and Indiana in the 70s, phones were blocky, all black, and plenty expensive. But they worked just fine. The call sounded great. I sometimes long for that quality today when struggling to put together a podcast and having to live with horrendous Skype quality problems.  Or when I am trying to listen to a conference call on my cell phone only to have the call dropped a couple of times, requiring me to call back in several times.

Robert Capps points out we have all made similar trade-offs for music. As an audiophile, I am just sick about the decline of high-quality music. The MP3 revolution has been marvelous in many ways, but the underlying quality of the music’s reproduction is not one of them.  Those of us with high-end audio equipment would be happy to do an “A/B” test for you non-believers any day of the week and show you just how lame over-compressed MP3s and satellite radio sound compared to CDs or, better yet, glorious old vinyl LPs!

But we live with these trade-offs because, as Capps suggests, flexibility, convenience and cost have improved so much.  Who doesn’t love the idea of carrying your entire music collection in your pocket on a media player or mobile phone that is smaller than a deck of cards?  And we all really like the sound of that when the the price is so nice; as in constantly falling. The price of communications connectivity and digital media have both plummeted in real terms compared to the past.

Thus, incidents like Gmail’s brief outage this week are likely to become less concerning for most of us as time goes on. Gmail a great free service that works great 99.9% of that time.  And that’s plenty good enough for most of us.

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