When the Cloud Gets Stormy, Grab an Umbrella

Last week, Adobe put nearly 2 million customers in a tight spot when its Creative Cloud suite went down for more than a day. It's a reminder that going all-in with distributed services comes with a degree of peril.

Last week, the world of graphic design essentially stopped for a day. Illustrators, user-interface designers, photo editors, layout pros? They literally couldn’t work.

The reason was a server problem with a widely used software suite that jumped into the cloud last year: Adobe Creative Cloud.

As I pointed out in a blog post discussing Adobe’s all-in move to software as a service (SaaS), the concept behind Creative Cloud sounds brilliant from a business model standpoint—while costly, it encourages constant software updates, rather than a single piece of software that you buy once—but it looks a lot less appealing when you can’t get your job done because of a database malfunction halfway around the world.

While legacy apps like InDesign and Illustrator largely remained functional for some (but not all) users, the services they were tied to—Behance, Typekit, and the company’s Digital Publishing Suite—couldn’t be accessed at all. Logins didn’t work, and the workarounds were embarrassing, essentially requiring users to reset to the trial version of the software.

It was a supremely frustrating situation, leaving designers with no way to log into their accounts, and therefore no way to access many of their files or get any work done. In one extreme example, The Daily Mail was unable to publish its iPad edition—a publication that’s such a big deal for Adobe that the company plays it up on its own website.

Simply put, sending out a tweet like this is never fun:

But then again, this one wasn’t much fun to write, either:

All the promises of the software only needing a once-a-month validation don’t feel quite so reassuring after this mess.

Failures like this are enough to raise big questions for the IT department, and they should.

Too Big to Fail

The reason this downtime was so painful for so many is that Adobe’s software is a touchstone for many visual folks. If you can’t use InDesign, you can’t work, and most of the alternatives are neither compatible with Adobe’s suite nor offer a feature set equal to it.

That’s a pretty significant difference from many internet-enabled apps. If Evernote goes down for a couple of hours, it’s a pain, but it won’t ruin your day. If you can’t publish to your website, or you blow a hard deadline on a print publication, or your agency is stuck having to explain the situation to a client, that’s far more significant. It’s the very definition of mission-critical.

“With the meltdown, the process of moving from cloud to iPad cannot be done,” one designer who works with iPad-based digital publications told The Daily Beast. “This is screwing anybody who uses Adobe InDesign to create interactive digital editions. It’s a nightmare in an industry that is runs on tight deadlines, whether they be internal or external.”

(By the way, that same Daily Beast article highlighted a couple of I-told-you-so types who stuck with the older version of the suite.)

To Adobe’s credit, the company is considering offering compensation to people or companies that were negatively affected by the downtime. But it raises the question of when a piece of software or hardware is too important to put in someone else’s hands.

Going (Almost) All-In

Cloud computing is an exciting space—and tech giants are pushing new cloud-enabled offerings all the time, most recently Microsoft. It’s the way things are going, and even Adobe’s blip probably won’t be enough to completely dampen the drumbeat.

But it will be enough to feed the skeptics, who have valid concerns about the single point of failure that Adobe has created for its nearly 1.85 million Creative Cloud customers.

“The problem as I see it is that cloud computing is essentially unattainable,” freelance journalist Alistair Dabbs wrote in a typically profane post for The Register. “Sure, it’s a lovely idea but it’s not so much a technology as a salesman’s pitch. And as with all sales pitches, it promises you the world and tries to keep you happy with a few clods of turf. It’s a technology that ought to work, but it only works when it ALL works, if you get what I mean.”

Failures like this are enough to raise big questions for the IT department, and they should. For all the studies out there that recommend companies consider going all-in on cloud computing as a cost-saving measure, stories like Adobe’s remind you of the dark side of all-in.

If your association is making a dip into the cloud, the processes matter. I disagree in part with Dobbs—I don’t see cloud-based services as merely a bill of goods with some extra perks—but you gotta have a way to keep working if your single point of failure actually fails.

A major print publication generally has another printing press to rely on in case the primary one goes down. It’s a serious vendor issue that the the Daily Mail didn’t have a similar backup option for its iPad app, that it was stuck apologizing instead of going with a Plan B. You wouldn’t put up with that with one of your industry-specific vendors; why would you with Adobe?

Just because the medium is changing doesn’t mean the strategy does. If your association relies on Creative Cloud, it would probably be wise to keep around a spare copy of Adobe Creative Suite—the pre-cloud version. You know, just in case.


Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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