Skype outage shows risk of free services in business

The 48-hour failure of Skype's internet telephony service earlier this month has highlighted the risks of using free web-based services in a business environment.

The 48-hour failure of Skype's internet telephony service earlier this month has highlighted the risks of using free web-based services in a business environment.

Jan Dawson, vice-president of US enterprise practice at analyst firm Ovum, said Skype was appropriate for occasional use by businesses, but it should not be used for mission-critical communications.

Dawson said that the failure should be a wake-up call for businesses. "This will remind users what they are really dealing with here. Arguably, those businesses have been living on borrowed time until now, although they have undoubtedly saved a lot of money in the process."

In a paper released earlier this year, analyst firm Gartner urged companies that allow end-users to run Skype to develop and disseminate a security policy regarding acceptable use and the consequences of misuse.

Gartner has recommended keeping Skype traffic off internal corporate networks as a best practice, as differentiating Skype traffic from data leakage is almost impossible.

Gartner research director Lawrence Orans said, "Skype traffic is encrypted, which blinds network-based intrusion prevention, content monitoring and filtering approaches. Skype's protocol also does not use a dedicated port - it attempts to use any port that the firewall is not blocking. This behaviour may trigger data-leakage sensors."

Use of free web services has major implications for business users. Roy Illsley, senior research analyst at Butler Group, said, "Free web-service based applications like Skype are not yet mature enough for rigorous business use." Such services work for the casual business user, but lack the service levels needed for a true business service, he said.

Over time, Illsley predicted that businesses would make more use of web-based services, especially as products are developed that provide business users with service-level agreements.

Illsley said one such service was Spiceworks, a free web-based IT helpdesk management tool for small and medium-sized businesses, which is paid for through site advertising.

Reasons behind the outage

Skype said the failure was due to problems in its peer-to-peer network software, combined with the effects of Microsoft's monthly patch update.

The Microsoft patch update forced Skype users to reboot their PCs and reconnect to Skype, which led to a spike in the number of users trying to log in. Skype was unable to cope with the log-in requests because of problems it was experiencing in its peer-to-peer network.

The company's website stated, "We would like to reassure our users across the globe that we have done everything we need to do to make sure this does not happen again. We have already introduced a number of improvements to our software to ensure our users will not be similarly affected - in the unlikely possibility of this combination of events recurring."

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