In the aftermath of Research in Motion's (RIM) largest services outage in the company's history, Jenny Williams investigates how businesses are building resilience against a single point of failure when a supplier's service goes down.
The three-day services outage affected major businesses and government departments that rely on Blackberry-maker RIM's enterprise messaging service to deliver mobile e-mail. The disruption to global services has caused businesses to rethink their usage and reliance on Blackberry smartphones, due to the single point of failure within RIM's network and IT infrastructure.
In the largest outage RIM has ever experienced, Blackberry smartphone users globally were left unable to access e-mails, browse or use its instant messaging platform, Blackberry Messenger (BBM). While the company says full services have been restored, some users faced further disruption due to a data backlog.
Lack of mobile services contingency plans
At RIM's annual Blackberry Innovation Forum, which took place during the outage, it was clear that few Blackberry users had contingency plans for a mobile services failure, with the majority using desktop PCs as a replacement.
Blackberry executives admitted at the Forum that the company is discussing future workarounds with carrier partners. Until service providers can team up to provide a resilient back-up service, companies need to consider whether it is good business practice to rely solely on RIM.
International law firm Hill Dickinson ordered Mimecast's Blackberry e-mail continuity service following the Blackberry outages, which affected up to 400 of its 1,400 staff worldwide.
The UK-based corporate law firm's staff rely on Blackberry smartphones for working across different time zones and communicating with clients out of office hours. The company lacked a contingency plan. During the outage it failed over to desktop PCs and web-based e-mail platforms to maintain access to its e-mail server.
Keith Feeny, IT and operations director at Hill Dickinson, said the company expects 99.99% uptime. RIM has publicly stated it has achieved 99.97% uptime in the past 18 months. "Our reliance is such that when it is not available, it is a problem to us. Even to be down for a couple of hours is unacceptable. We've had to look for ways to put some resilience into the product," said Feeny.
He said the service issues have been detrimental. "It damages your reputation with clients. Clients expect quick turnaround on communication and documents."
Hill Dickinson will have the Mimecast continuity service plan deployed as soon as possible. "We need to insure ourselves," Feeny said.
The service allows e-mails to be routed directly from the Mimecast cloud rather than through RIM's Blackberry Enterprise Server (BES) or Microsoft's Exchange server, providing Hill Dickinson with an alternative service, should RIM fail again.
Seeking Blackberry alternatives
Other IT heads are considering ditching RIM altogether.
Rich Kavanagh, head of ICT at Keep Britain Tidy, said despite RIM's previous reliable track record, the organisation is looking at cloud options and a move away from Blackberry devices.
Although he admitted that if it moved to a cloud service such as Google Apps, there would be no guarantee that those devices wouldn't suffer a services issue in the future.
Kavanagh said RIM needs to move away from relying on its global infrastructure and work with network providers to re-route traffic should it experience an outage again. "If there was an alternative large network infrastructure to re-route traffic, we'd be happy with a delay if it meant we had a service. The total outage from a business point of view is hard to deal with."
Is Blackberry's reputation irreparably damaged?
The service disruption adds to a rocky patch for the smartphone maker in the face of falling share prices, delayed products and loss of market share. In September 2011, RIM missed second-quarter earnings targets due to lower demand for older smartphone models.
Ovum analyst Nick Dillon said the company now faces issues beyond a three-day service disruption.
"These include capitalising on its growth in the consumer market, maintaining its stronghold in the enterprise and updating its software platform to cope with increasing competition from Apple, Google's Android and Microsoft's Window Phone," he said.
A study by enterprise mobility services firm iPass in September 2011 showed the dominance of Blackberry devices in businesses is expected to decline as employees opt to use Apple and Google Android devices for work purposes.
While IT departments perhaps took RIM's legacy of a secure and reliable service for granted, the Blackberry outage has bought RIM down to other mobile platform service levels in the minds of IT heads. Even with a strong track record, if RIM is without reliability, will it soon be without enterprise customers too?
The services outage will no doubt have a longer-term impact on RIM's future, as well as on UK businesses' cloud contingency measures.
Jenny Williams is a correspondent for Computer Weekly. She supports the technology team and covers mobile and desktop computing.