A major outage last Tuesday left Intuit's accounting and tax software inaccessible for thousands of its SMBs customers, affecting services including the popular TurboTax Online and QuickBooks Online.
The exact downtime of the sites was not entirely clear, though one poster at Intuit's community site expressed unhappiness and highlighted how 25 hours of downtime is unacceptable. Assuming this is true, this mean that the availability of the service for the month is only slightly better than a dismal 96.5 percent; this single outage will see the service achieve an uptime of at most 99.7 percent for the entire year.
Naturally, customers are left pretty upset, especially when SMBs who needed to process credit card payments found themselves unable to do so. Complaints stacked up swiftly at the community pages and small business blog. Both locations garnered hundreds of comments, many of them negative and seeking compensation for lost sales or penalty fees for bounced checks.
So what really happened here? According to Intuit, the outage was caused by a power failure that was "accidentally" triggered during regular maintenance, bringing both primary and backup systems to their knees.
In May, I wrote about how failure by vendors should not automatically mean that SMBs jump ship at the earliest opportunity. I pointed out that an upside of failure is how it is often an excellent opportunity to examine how your vendor reacts in a crisis. In this case, Intuit posted regular updates on the company blog even as the team worked to resolve the service outage.
There were issues though, that put the company into the negative spotlight, however.
Regular Updates, but no Details
The company attributed the problem to an "accident power failure" and issued periodic updates to the effect of apologizing to customers and giving reassurances that the team was working hard to restore affected services. Notwithstanding how a power issue of this magnitude could possibly occur in a properly equipped and run data center, details pertaining to the actual problem were scant to non-existent.
Indeed, Intuit Chief Information Officer Ginny Lee admitted as much in a post titled Update 5:
We understand we didn't communicate as frequently as you or we would have wanted. This issue was complicated and involved a number of Intuit applications. We did not want to share any information until we had complete confidence in it. We realize now that in times of uncertainty it is better to share updates on our progress as they occur versus waiting for complete answers, not sharing enough and leaving you feeling in the dark.
Accidental Power Outage. Huh?
Frankly, the idea of an accidental power outage bringing down both primary and backup systems is somewhat ludicrous. As it emerged, Intuit later said that the "process of restoring power caused a hardware system failure" and that the company still doesn't know the root cause of that in the back-to-back power fiasco.
The general feel about the outage is this: There is either something else that Intuit is not disclosing, or the entire debacle stems from gross incompetence of its technical staff, neither of which is good. In addition, there also is no mention of the off-site fall-back systems that some customers claims Intuit assured them were in place when they first signed up for the company's service.
I still believe transparency and honesty are vital on the part of IT vendors in the face of failure; it is also clear, though, that even such actions will do little to make incompetence look better.
Over the coming days, I certainly hope that Intuit is able to find out more about the failure and unveil a more comprehensive and involved strategy of dealing with the fallout. This issue here is not so much about cloud computing as maintaining the reliability of services that customers depend on. SMBs had chosen to rely on Intuit to furnish the uptime they are unable to build for themselves, but appear to have been left sorely disappointed.