Gmail, Too Big to Fail?


Everybody panic, Gmail went down for over an hour yesterday! Wait, is the email client really like a bank and too big to fail?

The facts are that yes, it is confirmed, Gmail went down and services were interrupted for a brief 25-30 minute period yesterday afternoon. But how many people were actually affected? Take into consideration that Gmail is one of the worlds largest free email providers. Although statistics regarding email service providers are surprisingly difficult to come by, a study by Mailchimp in 2011 revealed that the majority of emails being sent to addresses hosted by free providers included Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo, AOL and Comcast. In fact, according to Mailchimp, halfway through 2011, Google’s email service had nearly overtaken the lead from the other email providers despite being around for less time. It’s comfortably safe to assume that given their growth rate, they have by now overtaken the lead and Mailchimp’s sample size of statistics reflects the full scope of which free email providers have the most users.

These numbers are a couple of years old, but a little bit of math can provide some rough insight as to the potential amount of Gmail accounts that exist today, at least within autoresponder services. Mailchimp went from having about 183 million to 250 million between March and July, 2011. This works out to a 36 percent increased rate of growth during a four-month period. Assuming this same rate of growth continued, it means Mailchimp would have had 462 million Gmail accounts in their system by March, 2012, a 40 percent increase since the beginning of the year. Continue to assume this 40 percent growth rate remains constant for the next two years and this would put mean that Mailchimp would have just under 900 million Gmail addresses in their database  by today.

Take this a step further and consider that Mailchimp isn’t the only autoresponder service out there that contains emails. There is also iContact, Get Response, Aweber and a bunch of others that also contain a plethora of email addresses. Obviously, there is a lot of hypothesizing here but it does stand to reason that there are a lot of Gmail addresses that exist which means Google has a lot of responsibility and potentially could be too big to fail.

Thankfully, Gmail outages, while they do occasionally happen, are far and few between. Not only are they rare, but Google has an entire Site Reliability Team dedicated to keeping their systems up and running. This same team was ironically performing an AMA (Ask Me Anything) on Reddit at the time of the outage. The team handled some comments related to the situation by using humor which did earn them a positive response.

A Google Site Reliability Engineer’s humorous response to the Gmail outage.

Given that Google has many more services to manage than simply Gmail, it is extremely fortunate that all of their services are managed with as little downtime and errors as they have always been. When something does go astray such as yesterday’s outage, the situation is resolved quickly and with care. Google is also transparent about coming forward and issuing a statement to inform the public about what happened. Yesterday, they were quick to create a blog post with information as to what caused the outage and also listed three steps they would take to ensure that this problem does not occur again.

Gmail may be too big to fail but thankfully, the Google team is there to make sure things are back on track as soon as possible. The Google product forums are always open for anyone who has technical support questions and the response times are fast. And when the very brief outages do occur, people can always resort to old-fashioned ways of communication such as using the telephone or sending carrier pigeons.

Editorial By Jonathan Holowka

PC World
Blogging eHow

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