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Is Twitter now a critical app?

U.S. Department of State to Twitter: You can't take a breather for scheduled maintenance. But can Twitter afford to behave like a critical application?

As yet, Twitter is likely not on anyone's list of the top 10 most-critical applications. But has the U.S. government given Twitter a big push toward critical application status? This week the U.S. Department of State told Twitter it could not shut down for system maintenance because it had become a lifeline for thousands of protesters in Iran.

That should change the way IT vendors (particularly infrastructure vendors) view social-networking sites such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, etc.


Generally speaking, social-networking sites offer no guarantees to users. You post your content, you take your chances. And, while there is no sign at the entrance that says "Caution. You are about to enter a service-level-free zone," the sign is virtually there.

To infrastructure vendors, that spells commodity play. They look at the social-networking providers as great places to earn their Web 2.0 stripes, but tough places to make money. So, they are most likely to sell them least common denominator servers and storage--no frills, no value adds. In storage, for instance, they may only be asked to supply JBOD (just a bunch of disks) storage without RAID-based data protection, snapshots, or other quality of service enhancers. But that's OK they figure, no guarantees equals no risk.

Time out guys, there is risk. Think back 10 years ago today. eBay outages were in the news on an almost daily basis and Sun Microsystems wound up wearing the blame. Yes eBay was charting territory in a brave new world and therefore offered no service or availability guarantees. And yes there were more vendors in the mix at the time (Oracle and Veritas to name two). But the outages were very visible and Sun's image suffered disproportionately. While not explicitly stated, eBay users nonetheless had an implicit expectation of quality of service from eBay, a level that was never formally agreed to, but understood and expected.

Fast forward 10 years. Twitter is in uncharted territory, too. The temporary and periodic "system busy" messages are tolerated by users, but not without complaint. Jokes about Twitter's Fail Whale are common. Hey, it's not a critical app. We're all just having fun here, right? However, the elections in Iran have changed that perception. Twitter and other social-networking sites have become windows on a pivotal event with worldwide implications. The world wants to watch. Indeed, what the State Department's request says is that the whole world needs to watch. As a infrastructure vendor in this new and uncharted environment, do you now want to be blamed for an outage? For data loss? For a security breach?

This all adds up to the Twitter Conundrum. The owners of Twitter and other social-networking sites aren't likely to buy highly available, highly secure, redundant systems and storage of the type common to 24 by 7 production data centers. Their business models simply won't support big enterprise gear. But does that stop the federal government from stepping in and saying "sorry, you can't go down right now, not even for a few hours?" No. Twitter, YouTube, and FaceBook have created windows on the world, windows that could in fact change the world for the better. You can't fail (whale).

Here's the conundrum: No one presently pays a fee for posting to these sites. You get what you pay for or, in this case, you don't get what you don't pay for. You don't pay for and therefore don't get guaranteed availability or data integrity. Is the federal government now willing to subsidize Twitter so that it can function like a production data center? Probably not. Are users willing to pay a fee to get a guaranteed level of service? Again, probably not, at least not in the near future.

Owners of the social-networking sites have managed this conundrum by rolling their own. They get cheap, or even better, free infrastructure and make it work. The power implicit in what they do with the scarcest of resources is truly awesome. Now, as they're sites become embedded in the fabric of society, can they keep that model going? Perhaps, but they will likely need our help. Remember, e-mail was once a frivolous application.