Dvorak: Don't Trust Web-Application Servers

Microsoft's Windows Genuine Advantage plan became a genuine disadvantage two weekends ago when the server that verified users went down and began to disable operating systems around the world.

At least, it disabled the operating systems of computers that checked into the home base to affirm their legitimacy.

The WGA server outage hit on Friday evening, Aug. 24, and was finally repaired on the next day. It was down for 19 long hours.

In the meantime, the online message boards lit up, since the server error message and response from the company said the problem would not be fixed until Tuesday.

I have no idea what slacker said it would take until Tuesday for the outage to be fixed, but apparently some high-level executive found out what was going on and expedited the repair.

If this server had still been down on Monday and the outage hit the small office/home office users and business community, Microsoft would have been in a nightmare scenario.

One aspect of the nightmare scenario should be discussed now. What kind of system is this, anyway?

There should be no way that a legitimate user of a product should be suddenly cut off from use of that product because of an authentication server error, ever.

All this proves is that these Web-based applications cannot be trusted.

A hacker attack on the WGA servers could shut down literally millions of machines whose users stupidly subscribed to this supposed "advantage," which does little more than look for pirated copies of the operating system.

And yes, some users are not stupid, but were forced to use the system. Others were hounded or tricked.

If this WGA were designed right in the first place, the computers that found the server inoperative when they checked in to it should have internal code that validates their OS until the server comes back up.

Maybe it is too hard for Microsoft's 20,000 coders to manage this sort of thing. Too logical.

All the chatter on the message boards during the outage slowly got around to the subject of switching to Linux; there is no way such a thing could ever happen to Linux users.

This is not what Microsoft wants to read, especially on its own forums. One could only imagine the screeching if the WGA server had still been down on Monday.

Software as a Service

The bigger issue here, though, is the genuine threat to "software as a service" and the entire online model for applications.

This model is what Microsoft is moving towards. We are hounded by the notion that eventually we'll all be using thin clients, and all the apps will be in the "cloud."

"I only use Google Docs," a friend of mine told me. "It's as good as Word and easier to share files."

Easier to share files? So how hard is it to attach a doc file to an e-mail anyway? Cripes.

And what happens if the system fails? The damage wouldn't be too bad if you backed everything up, but then why use the online system in the first place?

To analyze the illogic of certain trends, I like to employ a trick I call the "reverse timeline." I ask myself, "What happens if the timeline goes the other way?"

In this instance, you'd start with server-based online applications, and then suddenly a new technology -- the desktop computer with a quad-core processor and huge hard drive -- appears. Now, you do not need to do all your computing online. The timeline is reversed.

You can image the advertising push. "Now control your own data!" "Faster processing power now." "Cheaper!" "Everything at your fingertips." "No need to worry about network outages." "Faster, cheaper, more reliable." On and on.

I can almost hear the marketing types brag about how much better "shrink wrap" software is than the flaky online apps. The best line for the emergence of the desktop computer in a reverse timeline would be "It's about time!"

Though tech trends are clearly going in the direction of having apps online, last weekend's massive failure of an important online subsystem does prove that such reliance on the network and applications servers has the potential to be catastrophic.

Microsoft is a provider of server software and is more than a little familiar with running huge installations. This 19-hour outage that the company itself said would last perhaps 72 hours happened to Microsoft, not to Alabama Joe's Server Farm and Toaster Repair. So that in itself is scary.

This sort of thing happened in the dot-com era when company after company, all reliant on server apps, went out of business and left the users with no data. People who rely on simple things such as online photo storage and display have had trouble.

What is often lost in individual analyses of how to proceed with your data-processing needs is the concept of "being at the mercy of a single company." It's something that you need to avoid at all costs. This Windows Genuine Disadvantage pothole should make all users rethink their strategies.

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