The University of Bath email service is still down. The problems were first announced 0n Twitter at 06.02 on 24 February:

The University email is currently running at risk of failure we are working towards a fix – sorry for any disruption caused.

Later that day we heard:

University email will be unavailable for the rest of the day -for alternative use University Instant Messenger Jabber:

The problems continued the following day and so BUCS (the Bath University Computing Service) announced an interim email service: I can now send and receive email but can’t access any email messages which I received prior to 25 February.  I must adit that this provides a strange feeling of bliss (my email folder is almost empty!), but I  know that the actions which I’m now running behind on will come back to haunt me when the full email service is restored.

Of course communications have continued, particularly on Twitter. I’m pleased, incidentally, that BUCS have been using Twitter as a communications channel to keep their users informed of developments.  It has also occurred to me how I am still able to continue working using Twitter to support my professional activities: how, I wonder, are others at the University of Bath who don’t use Twitter coping?

During this outage, whilst away in London, I suggested that use of Google’s GMail service might be appropriate.  In response I received the ironical reply:

Gmail never breaks. Oh. Wait. 🙂

It seems that on the day Bath University email users were suffering as a consequence of hardware problems on its email servers Gmail was also having problems. As the PocketLint article rather dramatically announced:

Oh dear – looks like Google has dropped the bomb on hundreds of thousands of Gmail accounts, wiping out years of email and chat history.

You can’t trust GMail to provide a reliable email service seemed to be the sub-text of other Twitter followers who responded to my initial tweet.  But is that really the case? I have described the continuing problems with the BUCS email service (which are summaried in a BUCS FAQ). But what is the current status of GMail?

Whilst Computer Weekly has highlighted the problems of use of Web-based email services the CBC News has pointed out thatGmail messages [are] being restored after bug“.  The article described how  emails “are being restored to Gmail accounts temporarily emptied out two days ago”. This problem was either small-scale – “About 0.02 per cent of Gmail users had their accounts completely emptied“) or significant – “media outlets estimate there are roughly 190 million Gmail users, so about 38,000 were affected”. The problem, caused by a bug which has now been fixed, did not affect me whereas the BUCS email outage clearly has.  Which, I wonder, is the more significant problem?

I have to admit that I have been affected by outages in externally-hosted communications services previously. In September 2009  I wrote a post entitled “Skype, Two Years After Its Nightmare Weekend” which described how “Skype’s popular internet telephone service went down on August 16 [2007] and was unavailable for between two and three days“. This was also due to a software bug (related to MS Windows automated updates) which has been fixed – and I have continued to be a happy Skype user and agree with last year’s Guardian article which described “Why Skype has conquered the world”.

So yes there will be problems with externally-hosted systems, just as there will be problems with in-house systems (and ironically the day before the BUCS email system went down and two days before GMail suffered its problems my desktop PC died and I had to spend half a day setting up a new PC!). It may therefore be desirable to develop plans for coping with such problems – and note that a number of resources which provide advice on backing up GMail have been provided recently, including a Techspot article on “How to Backup your Gmail Account” and a Techland article on “How to backup GMail“.

But in addition to such technical problems there are also policy challenges which need to be considered. At the University of Bath email accounts are deleted when staff and students leave the institution (and for a colleague who retired recently the email account was deleted a day or so before she left). One’s GMail account, on the other hand, won’t be affected by changes in one’s place of study or employment.  In light of likely redundancies due to Government cutbacks isn’t it sensible to consider migration from an institutional email service?  And shouldn’t those who are working or studying for a short period avoid making use of an institutional email account which will have a limited life span?