I’m an admin now for three Google Apps for Business accounts, and I’ve had some headaches recently with all three of them. So far, all of my problems seem to have arisen from errors on Google’s end, and as I went ’round and ’round with support for Google, Postini, and Spanning Backup, I got a first-hand reminder of one of the major reasons why so many IT pros are reluctant to jump on the cloud: As the title of this post says, in the cloud there is no sudo. Or if there is a sudo, then you don’t know the password. This is one very good reason why people who are accustomed to being super-users can sometimes panic when faced with the prospect of a public cloud migration.
My recent cloud troubles have also caused me to wonder about the opposite issue — namely, I worry that the lack of real super-user abilities in the cloud may make things even harder on small-time customers than on larger accounts. IT pros at large corporations may not have sudo, but they have the number of someone who does and who wants to make sure they stay happy. But if you’re an individual or a small business or non-profit — exactly the kind of entity that is most attracted to the cloud because of cost savings — you won’t merit any special attention from a service provider, and you may find it harder to get problems resolved. At least, that’s my theory, which I admit is supported so far by purely anecdotal evidence.
My own case of cloud panic
I’ve been troubleshooting PCs since the Commodore 128, and I’ve spent many hours over the years tweaking autoexec.bat and config.sys files, editing registry settings, and otherwise fiddling around in the guts of DOS, Windows (from WfW 3.11 and NT 3.51 through XP), and (to a lesser extent) OS X. The thing that’s both comforting and terrifying about every PC troubleshooting task is that you, as admin, have the power to do whatever you want. In the end, this power means that with enough diligence you can at the very least figure out what’s wrong with your own PC or server, even if you can’t fix the problem without help from a vendor.
All of this came back to me as I spent days waiting helplessly for followups from Google Support. In one incident, I was trying to prove to Google that I had control of a particular nonprofit’s domain so that I could sign them up for Google Apps for Business, but I was locked out of the sign-up process by someone unknown person who was apparently also trying to register a GA account under the same domain. It turned out that there was an obscure issue with an earlier Postini account tied to the domain that was causing the problems, and after two weeks and two different tech support people we finally got it resolved.
Then there were the problems I had setting up Postini on my own domain, jonstokes.com. There was an error on Google’s end that was stalling my setup in the MX records update phase, and it took more support tickets to get that fixed.
And now, I’m in the middle of an issue with Spanning Backup on jonstokes.com. Google pushed out an update on the morning that I signed up for Spanning, and this update apparently fried my install process. Despite paying for Spanning, the issue still hasn’t been resolved, and as of Tuesday morning I’m was still waiting for advice on how to proceed.
Given these recent experiences, I felt a twang of familiar sympathy when reading a post on Spanning’s blog about users who are logging into Google Docs and finding whole collections missing or mangled. The titles of the support threads are the voices of people who, in earlier days, probably could’ve found some hack or fix that would get them through the issue, but who are now left waiting on Google to notice the problem and fix it.
I realize that in posting this, I’m inviting a fair amount of “gee, welcome to my world chump, glad to see you’ve finally figured out what IT pros have known for a long time.” But I think it’s nonetheless worth putting out there, because I’m interested in hearing more from other small-time cloud users. I’ve always recognized that the control issues I discuss here are a Big Deal for enterprise users, even though I haven’t always been as sympathetic as I am a this moment. But I don’t think that it’s as widely recognized that this same loss of control could be an even bigger headache for smaller accounts, so I’d love to add to my pile of “small-time cloud user frustrated by powerlessness and support dependence” anecdotes if anyone else has one to share.
Postini post-script: I can’t write a post about Postini without grousing that its interface is only slightly less janky and Byzantine than Condé Nast’s Peoplesoft expense reporting system. It’s so bad that I actually wish they had used Flash to implement it. On the other hand, though, using it makes me feel kind of hard core, like I’m administrating some enterprise line-of-business application that was written in Access. I sometimes get the urge to reach down to my hip and take a glance at my pager when I see the screen.
Image above is the obligatory XKCD cartoon.
Have any news tips, or just want to send me feedback? You can reach me at jon underscore stokes at wired.com. I’m also on Twitter as @jonst0kes, and on Google+.