Outages cast doubts on MS online services

Scott dunn By Scott Dunn

With the recent public betas of Office Live Workspace and Microsoft Online Services, the Redmond company is ratcheting up its efforts to deliver the power of MS Office — or at least a portion of it — to the Internet.

But Microsoft’s ability to offer software as a service (SaaS) has come under fire due to server outages and bugs that have plagued the company’s online services in the last several months.

Early missteps in bringing Office to the Web

Microsoft’s SaaS efforts are off to a very bumpy start. In recent weeks and months, widespread and long-lasting outages of Windows Live Hotmail, Live Messenger, and other new online services have left many of its customers wondering whether Microsoft is up to the challenge.

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Failures of Microsoft services since last summer have reportedly affected millions of subscribers, and some of the problems have persisted for several weeks.

A little over a month ago, the Microsoft Developer Network (MSDN) was struck by a series of outages that confounded customers. On Friday, Feb. 29, and Saturday, Mar. 1, MSDN subscribers were unable to download products or product keys.

“There was a downtime to complete some system work that had been started four weeks ago,” wrote MSDN and TechNet subscription product manager Julie H. Cairn in the Official MSDN Subscriptions blog. “The fact that the completion work this weekend would even impact subscriber downloads was totally missed by those that could have gotten a notice posted externally. No excuses — just an apology.”

According to Microsoft, on the Monday after the weekend outage, errors prevented a “large number” of subscribers from downloading products or getting product keys. MSDN had considered the problem small when it was initially discovered the previous week, but by that Monday, reported cases had grown so numerous that the service put together a fix the same day.

This was bad enough for MSDN subscribers, but a problem of much greater magnitude affected them last October. An outage that involved a mysterious “Error 11008″ made it impossible for numerous subscribers to access downloads.

Many customers could not progress past an Error 11008 screen to access MSDN features. The problem dragged on for at least three weeks, proving especially frustrating to consultants who depend on the service to meet the needs of their clients.

“Of all people, is Microsoft not capable of keeping a subscription service up and running more than half the time?”, asked a user identified as Ren in the MSDN blog comments.

Another writer, identified as JD, wrote:
  • “At this point, most companies would have rolled this back to that past release rather than see how angry they can make their highest-value customers. We are the developers that use and recommend your products…. Is this the level of service/reliability we can tell our management to expect from Microsoft? Is there any kind of plan in place to compensate users for this substantial interruption?

    “Please remember that many of us are also developers and understand the complexities of a site like this. I suspect that some of us also support even more complex sites, but could you imagine what it would be like if your local bank left a broken bill-pay site up for a few weeks?”
Microsoft product manager Cairn replied in a post on Oct. 31 that “we have already had the ‘rollback’ discussion a few times.” She offered that in a few months the system would be “a lot less complicated in terms of ownership and responsibility.” Her post promised, “The integration point where these 11008 failure points are happening today will not even be part of the system come February,” though she noted the need for continued work on the problem.

Just a few days later, on Nov. 5, the rollback option was rejected. Kathy Dixon of TechNet Plus Subscriptions posted an update on the TechNet Plus blog, explaining, “It is not an option to roll back these changes, so work is now underway to evaluate possible solutions.”

The next weekend, Nov. 10–11, the MSDN site was down intermittently as the team implemented updates and fixes. For some users, this resulted in a new and equally perplexing “Error 11009″ message, which several subscribers complained about in comments on Dixon’s blog post.

Although the problems were resolved for some users, they persisted for others. In a TechNet Plus blog comment on Nov. 12, subscriber Glenn MacDonald said, “It will not make it worthwhile to renew. I have lost at least a month of service now, and as an independent contractor, it makes it difficult to research errors for clients when I don’t have access to software.”

More problems for consumer online services

Microsoft’s online outages have extended beyond developers:

  • Hotmail hell. One of the most recent frustrations for Microsoft customers occurred in late February 2008, when problems with Windows Live login IDs blocked access for users around the world for most of a day. According to a story in Computerworld, users in the U.S. and at least four other countries were unable to log in to Windows Live Hotmail, Xbox Live, Skydrive Live, and Live Messenger. Estimates of the number of individuals affected varies, but many bloggers put the number in the millions.

  • Invalid validations. For much of a weekend last August, users who attempted to activate legitimate copies of Windows, or to use the Windows Genuine Advantage (WGA) feature to validate them, were told that their products were “not genuine.” The problem was described in Susan Bradley’s Patch Watch column in the paid version of Windows Secrets on Sept. 6, 2007. It was also explained in the WGA blog by Microsoft program manager Alex Koch.

    The problem, wrote Koch, was that “production servers had not yet been upgraded with a recent change to enable stronger encryption/decryption of product keys during the activation and validation processes.” Koch claimed that this was not an outage (if it were, systems calling in would pass validation), but rather that the “trusted source of validations” was responding incorrectly.

  • Partner portal sign-out problems Partner problems. As of this writing, the opening page of the Microsoft Partner Program server contains an announcement (shown at right) of known sign-out problems on the Partner Portal. “We are aware of the problems with signing out of the portal and are actively working to resolve these issues,” the note states, somewhat cryptically.
Will mission-critical services be different?

The public beta of Office Live Workspace (OLW) debuted on Mar. 4. Microsoft’s OLW lets you view, share, and store Office documents using a Web browser. Unlike Google Docs and other online applications, the new service doesn’t let you create and edit documents online. Still, it represents Microsoft’s first attempt to bring Office to the Web. The current build also supports a link within the PC version of MS Office that allows posting and viewing documents online.

Around the time OLW’s public beta began, the software giant also broadened the beta testing of its Microsoft Online Services (MOS) offering. This package combines features of Exchange and SharePoint servers, with support for additional functions. Before last month, MOS was available only to businesses with 5,000 or more employees.

The twin moves are among the first in Microsoft’s attempts to enter the SaaS era. The promise of SaaS is that users will be able to create and edit documents via a Web browser instead of using programs that reside on their local machines.

However, for Microsoft to succeed in providing software as a service, individuals and companies need to have confidence that the services will meet their needs at a reasonable cost and with minimal risk. The recent server problems make it even more important for customers to be assured that their files are safe and accessible.

Some people argue that outages of free services, such as Hotmail and Live Messenger, are less costly than any failures of the mission-critical, hosted applications that Microsoft intends to offer its enterprise customers. Therefore, this thinking goes, the enterprise-level services are likely to receive more attention and resources from Microsoft than the free ones.

Lee Pender, a writer for the independent Microsoft-analysis site Redmond Channel Online Partner, points out that Microsoft’s partners, and not the company itself, handle most of the enterprise-level SaaS hosting duties. However, Pender acknowledges that this comparison may hold little weight with the average customer, who is more likely to have an emotional reaction to Microsoft’s server problems.

“Even if hosted Web-based e-mail and hosted enterprise applications don’t make for a good apples-to-apples comparison,” he writes, “huge problems with Hotmail don’t exactly instill confidence in partners or IT folks mulling over the idea of outsourcing important enterprise functions to a hosted model.”

You need only ask MSDN customers affected by the outages last October and last month whether the problems had a significant impact on their businesses. Judging from the comments posted online, the answer for many was a clear “yes.”

For Microsoft to translate the success of its popular Office applications to the online world, its development teams must inspire greater confidence in their ability to provide consistent, reliable service. Based on the stumbles to date, this is far from a sure thing.

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Scott Dunn is associate editor of the Windows Secrets Newsletter. He has been a contributing editor of PC World since 1992 and currently writes for the Here’s How section of that magazine.
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