Lighten Up: It's Only Email!

Old-timers like me remember when even one "nine" sounded pretty good. Email is asynchronous, so what's the big deal if it's unavailable 10% of the time? We'd get upset when our machines were off the net for hours or days, of course, but an email outage of under an hour was rarely even noticed. (And don't get me started on delivery time: I once sent a message to Israel that took almost two months to bounce back to me in the form of a delivery failure report.)

At 53, I often describe myself as "old." Partly I do so in the hope -- rarely fulfilled -- that some sweet young thing will argue with me, but mostly it's because the amount of change I've seen, in the course of working thirty years on email technology, makes me feel like I come from a previous millennium. Which of course I do.

The latest story to make me re-check my eligibility for Social Security is Google and Microsoft's public spat over the uptime and availability of their respective email services. Google is claiming to be available 99.984% of the time (nearly "four nines" of reliability), and is now quarreling with Microsoft over how to measure such things. For my part, I'm wondering more why than how.

How did a mechanism for asynchronous message delivery -- designed as an analogue to a postal service that made six deliveries per week -- come to require the level of reliability we associate with life support technologies in hospitals? Partly I think this is the "lab rat" phenomenon I described in my previous blog post. When you're between tasks, or avoiding a task, it's almost irresistable to check for new messages absurdly often. But also to blame is the fact that so much business is now conducted by email, and people tend to consider business email "urgent."

But I'll let you in on a little secret: if it's really urgent, there's a good chance someone will call you on the phone, or (if they remember how) walk over to your desk. Even today, people rarely use email for emergencies or other critical situations. Your spouse won't call you from downstairs to tell you the house is on fire. You're unlikely to be promoted by email, and while it's a bit more likely you'll be fired by email (because managers are often cowards), are you really in that much of a hurry to hear about it?

Buddhists have long used "mindfulness bells" to remind them, at random moments, to pay attention to the current moment. The great contemporary Buddhist teach Thich Nhat Hanh has suggested that modern people could use red lights and traffic delays as mindfulness bells, to make these unwanted stops engage us rather than enrage us. An email outage could make a fine meditation bell, if only such outages were a little more frequent.

As if on cue, I paused while drafting this post, realizing I was 10 minutes late for lunch with a colleague. In my mailbox was a 15-minute old note from her, asking if I was ready. Over lunch, I asked why she had asked by email, and whether the delay annoyed her. On the contrary, she used email to permit a delay, not wanting to bother me until I was at a good stopping point. If she'd been short on time, she said, she'd have called or come to my desk.

None of this is intended to suggest that email isn't very, very important for today's businesses, or that providers shouldn't strive for four or five "nines" of reliability. At Mimecast, as my colleague Orlando recently explained, we offer a 100% SLA, which we back up with distributed redundancy and guarantees. Email is serious business to us because it is our business. But to a user, an email outage can be a nano-vacation. If you're really lucky, it'll last long enough to put on sunglasses!