Email Security

    Gmail Outages and Cloud Downtime: How to Ensure Business Continuity

    The recent high-profile Gmail outage was part of a troubling increase in cloud service breakdowns. Organizations need to revise their planning for business continuity.

    by Karen Lynch

    Key Points

    • December’s Gmail outage was not an isolated incident in the cloud services market.
    • Cloud service outages are increasing, which can be especially disruptive to remote workers.
    • Organizations need to revise their business continuity plans with outage strategies to meet the growing challenge.

    Cloud services have been vital to the working world during the pandemic, as organizations rushed to set up millions of employees’ home offices. But they’re showing the strain. So, what happens to your business continuity when your cloud service goes out — an increasingly frequent and consequential occurrence?

    Last month’s high-profile Gmail outage wasn’t its first. Odds are that it won’t be its last. And Google isn’t the only service provider that’s been experiencing significant outages. Microsoft 365, Salesforce, Slack and others have all recently suffered disruptions and outages. Mimecast’s analysis of the latest Gmail outage underscores that cloud service providers are unable to provide you with an always available service, whatever their service level agreements and advertised uptime.

    Outages can mean lost productivity for teams that rely on cloud services. They can also mean security lapses, as employees turn to personal accounts to share sensitive business data and personally identifiable information. With more cloud service outages predicted for 2021 — cutting off remote workers from critical communications and collaboration — it may be time to update your business continuity plan to meet today’s challenges.

    Gmail and Cloud Outages on the Rise

    The December 2020 Gmail outage was part of a larger Google Workspace (formerly G Suite) disruption affecting services used by over a billion people worldwide.[1] It was followed, on the first business day of 2021, by a Slack outage of about five hours, affecting some of the 750,000 companies using that collaboration platform.[2] A couple weeks before the Gmail outage, a widely reported Amazon Web Services episode affected customers for several hours, too.[3]

    A trade publication’s Top 10 list of 2020’s biggest cloud outages also includes Salesforce and Zoom incidents in August and Microsoft outages in May, August and September. Most are due to technical issues rather than security breaches, lasting a relatively short duration with a patchy impact. “While 2020 saw no truly catastrophic outages of the kind lasting more than a few hours, businesses have at times been frustrated and stymied by unexpected downtime,” CRN reported.[4]

    The problem isn’t entirely new for either cloud-delivered or on-premise applications. What is new is that outages are becoming more common with greater impact, according to the Uptime Institute, which advises companies on the reliability of business-critical infrastructure. “Many more outages — and there are more of them — have a more immediate, wider and bigger impact than in the past. This trend will continue for several years, as networks, IT and cloud services take time to mature and evolve to meet the heavy availability demands put upon them.”[5]

    Gmail Outage and Futureproofing

    Google promised to take several steps to improve availability following the Gmail outage, by preventing hasty implementation of global changes, for example, and improving its monitoring to catch incorrect configurations sooner. “We are conducting a thorough investigation of the incident and will be making the changes which result from that investigation our top priority in Google Engineering,” the company said.[6]

    Still, there have been notable Gmail outages before. Various published reports point to several in 2019-2020.[7]

    Greater Dependency Demands Greater Resilience

    As reliance on cloud services has increased, so has the need to ensure service availability. Gartner sees businesses worldwide spending 18.4% more on cloud services in 2021 — that is, $305 billion this year versus $258 billion last year.[8]

    “This dependency has radically increased in recent years,” writes the Uptime Institute. For their part, however, cloud service providers “are rarely fully accountable or transparent about their shortcomings.”[9] So IDC says the onus is on those using cloud services. “IT will need to allocate more resources to evaluating the risks and potential benefits of taking greater advantage of as-a-service-based solutions.”[10]  

    Planning for Business Continuity During Cloud Downtime

    Mimecast’s State of Email Security 2020 report provides a case in point for cloud service downtime, revealing that 59% of companies surveyed had experienced a Microsoft 365 outage in the previous 12 months. 65% of respondents said they had been adding layers of continuity and resilience. About a third reported business downtime due to a lack of resilience preparedness.

    Strategies to increase resilience against incidents such as the Gmail outage include contingency planning, hybrid premise/cloud or multi-cloud setups, and backups such as Mimecast’s email continuity service, which automatically kicks in to let employees continue using live and archived email as usual.

    Prescient Solutions, an IT consulting firm, advised steps to minimize outages like using a secondary DNS service or tapping into multiple cloud regions, since cloud service outages are often limited to a single region. Whatever steps they take, organizations should also develop a cloud outage strategy, the firm writes, because “No matter how many redundant systems you put in place, cloud outages will happen.”[11] Any such strategy should at least include a point of contact, a list of approved backup tools and guidelines on how to use them.[12]

    The Bottom Line

    Cloud-based email is central to organizations’ productivity — serving as their primary form of communication and collaboration, and their most important repository of corporate information. When email goes down, productivity goes down. The recent high-profile Gmail outage is just one of a growing number of cloud service outages. Experts advise revising business continuity plans with outage strategies to meet the increasing challenge.


    [1]Reliability,” Google

    [2] Slack website homepage and status page

    [3]Amazon Web Services Outage Causes Issues for Roku, Adobe,” CNBC

    [4]The 10 Biggest Cloud Outages of 2020,” CRN

    [5]Outages Drive Authorities and Businesses to Act,” Uptime Institute

    [6]Google Cloud Infrastructure Components Incident #20013,” Google

    [7] Hindustan Times, C|Net , New York Times

    [8]Gartner Forecasts Worldwide Public Cloud End-User Spending to Grow 18% in 2021,” Gartner

    [9]Five Data Center Trends for 2021,” Uptime Institute

    [10]IDC FutureScape: Worldwide IT Industry 2021 Predictions,” IDC

    [11]Minimize the Impact of Cloud Outages with These Strategies,” Prescient Solutions

    [12]2021 Business Lesson: Don’t Slack on Your Outage Backup Plan,” CMSWire

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