A colleague of mine has just alerted me to the fact that the University of Southampton Web site is down for scheduled maintenance from 2-4th January 2008. She had noticed this as she regularly visits the Web site to access the wide range of resources it provides on institutional repositories (note added on 4 Jan 2008 – the Web site is now available, ahead of schedule!).

University of Southampton Web site downtime announcementThat’s no big deal, you may think, servers do need maintenance and the first few days after the Christmas break is probably the best time,with students still away and many researchers likely to take an additional few days holiday.

I’d be in broad agreement with such sentiments (I used to work in IT Services, after all, and I’m aware of the complexities of managing IT systems). But have our expectations changed, I wonder? And rather than taking time off at this time of year, what if users have imminent deadline for papers and need to access such services? And who are the users of the University of Southampton Web site – no longer just staff and students at Southampton, I would argue’ rather at prestigious institutions such as the University of Southampton there is likely to be a significant national (and indeed international) user community.

But how should we establish what reasonable practices may be in addressing user expectations of a 24×7 service availability, but without the business models to fund such requirements. Perhaps the debate can be helped by initially monitoring best practices within the community and making comparisons with other communities.

In this respect the Netcraft service can be useful, as it provides automated analyses on public Web services, including profiles on Web server software usage and server uptime data.

As can be seen from the graph, the main Web server at Southampton University has had an average uptime (based on a 90-day moving average) of 405 days. And this data compare very favourably with Sun’s data for which the equivalent figure is 34 days.

Netcraft server uptime graph for Southampton University

I suspect the University of Southampton will have a high rating with the UK HE sector for its server uptime. But, of course, that will probably not be appreciated by the user who tries to access the site on day 406 to gather data for a paper which needs to be submitted by day 407!

Is it possible (or, rather, realistic) to improve the server availability for institutional services? Should we be replicating our servers (or our data)? Should we outsource the management of our services to companies such as Amazon, as an international company such as Amazon (with their data hosting S3 service) may be better positioned to provide 24x7x365 availability?

But before responding to such questions I feel that institutions may need to ask themselves to whom they should be accountable. If institutional Web sites are now providing significant services to a global audience, how can we ensure that that global community is being provided with acceptable levels of service? After all, we ask these questions of externally-hosted Web services. But don’t we all act as externally hosted Web services to others outside our institution?

Wouldn’t it be interesting to have server uptime data across all our institutions? And if the data for sector compares favourably with the commercial sector, then we will have something to be pleased with. And if the comparison is unfavourable, then this should help to inform our planning – and provide objective data to inform discussions on the relevance to our sector on services such as Amazon S3.