99.999….The Quest for Reliability on the Internet

When it comes to the operations of Internet businesses, 99.999 percent uptime, or five nines, is one of the critical metrics of reliability. Yet that metric — essentially the ability to say that users will reliably be able to reach a business’ web site 99.999 percent of the time — still eludes nearly every of them.

99.999 percent uptime for a web site equates to just 5.26 minutes of downtime per year. That is the total amount of downtime — planned or unplanned — as seen by users. According to a report last month by Pingdom, only three of the top 20 most popular web sites achieved this metric in 2007: Yahoo, AOL and Comcast’s site for high-speed Internet customers (eBay’s site was close, with only six minutes of downtime in 2007). Another report by Pingdom shows that most of the popular social networks did not achieve even three nines (or less than 525.6 minutes of downtime) in the first four months of 2008. Moreover, none achieved anywhere close to 99.999 percent uptime.

When I ask people about web sites that are down more than they would like, the most common response I hear is that the web site is a nice-to-have feature of their lives and not a critical element that they absolutely rely upon. If one search engine is down, you can use another. If a social network is down, then there are other ways of reaching your friends.

In other words, web sites are seen as unreliable, a perception that drives down user adoption, increases churn, reduces page views, limits ad impressions and increases abandoned shopping carts. I believe the converse to also be true — highly reliable web sites have high user loyalty and return rates, lower churn, more page views and advertising revenues and more sales.

While some may dispute the accuracy of Pingdom’s measurements, clearly being unreliable is not a trait that any person or web site strives to achieve. An unreliable person in life is not someone you invite home to meet your parents and not someone you want working on your critical business project. When interviewing candidates for jobs at my portfolio companies I have never heard anyone refer to their redeeming quality of being unreliable and absent more than expected — so why is that same quality so visible on web sites across the Internet?

It’s always better to be known as the reliable person in, any situation, whether for personal or business reasons. I wish that the Internet web sites that I use frequently in both aspects of my life had the same redeeming quality. Is 99.999 percent uptime too much to ask?