3 of the biggest cloud outages of 2020

This year's largest cloud outages were dominated by the three titans in the market: Zoom, Microsoft Azure, and Google Cloud Platform.
17 December 2020

3 biggest public cloud outages of 2020. Source: Shutterstock

  • Cloud providers have met the tremendous surge in demand caused by the pandemic, with a few notable exceptions
  • Here are the 3 biggest cloud outages that have impacted users so far this year

Cloud computing’s usage has increased manifold in the last few years. But this year especially, Covid-19 has put services to extraordinary tests.

Though it is the obligation of the cloud service provider to take responsibility for their infrastructure and ensure security and safety at all ends, sometimes it doesn’t quite happen. There have been several large-scale incidents this year, in some cases, stemming from a surge in usage. 

Most recently, on December 14, multiple Google Cloud services and websites including YouTube, Gmail, Google Assistant, and Google Docs were down for around an hour after being hit with a widespread outage. Google acknowledged the issues with Gmail, affecting both its business and personal services, and said the problem was fixed for the “vast majority” of use.

But as quickly as they’re resolved, outages like this call to question our increasing reliance on the services of just a small number of cloud giants. And if businesses are to continue using them, should they be prepared for outages as an unfortunate by-product of the technology, or even begin calculating the cost of an outage to their business?

With Google Cloud’s outage still fresh in the mind, here are three other major incidents from 2020.

AWS, November 26

A large-scale AWS outage recently handed us another reminder of how large swathes of internet apps, services, and websites are at the mercy of large tech firms.

Problems with AWS in November — which Amazon claimed only affected one of its 23 geographic AWS regions (US-East-1) — affected multiple firms including Roku, Adobe, Glassdoor, Autodesk, The Wall Street Journal, 1Password among others, as well as a large number of Amazon’s own services, including its home security camera company Ring.

The e-commerce giant’s cloud division said that the issue affected its Kinesis Data Streams API and other dependent services — including CloudWatch, DynamoDB, Lambda, Managed Blockchain, Rekognition, SageMaker, and Workspaces, among many others. 

“With architecture as extensive as AWS’, it is imperative across the board that each and every element of this is integrated correctly, from datacenter through to each digital service,” said Mike Kiersey, principal technologist at Dell Technologies company Boomi. 

Major AWS customers including Apple, Slack, and Netflix didn’t seem to be affected.

Microsoft Azure, March 3

It was an initial early March six-hour outage that struck the US East data center for Microsoft’s Azure cloud, limiting the availability of Azure cloud services for some North American customers. Microsoft then disclosed that a cooling system failure was the cause of the outage. Malfunctioning building automation controls caused a reduction in airflow, and the subsequent temperature spikes throughout the data center hampered the performance of network devices, rendering compute and storage instances inaccessible.

Microsoft ultimately reset the cooling system controllers, and once the temperature fell, engineers power-cycled hardware to resume services. 

Then came a series of March outages impacting European customers that were caused by strains placed on several cloud services by the pandemic. By the end, Microsoft accepted blame for not promptly addressing the failure. It doesn’t end there, though, as there were more Microsoft cloud outages on Sept 28, Oct 1, and Oct 7 of this year.

Zoom, August 24

Considering how an outage by Zoom would not have mattered much a year ago, the now-popular video conferencing platform’s three-hour outage in August this year shows the company’s meeting and webinar services offline no longer just affect white-collar workers.

Zoom now has around 115 million daily active users, used by anyone from the smallest dental offices to large-scale enterprises. The company’s service has become perhaps the verb of 2020’s work-from-home movement, but in August, the firm started receiving reports of users being unable to access the Zoom.us website, and unable to start and join meetings and webinars.

It’s unclear how many organizations, companies, and school districts were affected, but Zoom did not explain what caused the outage, saying on its status page only that it had found the issue and resolved it.

There are three among many and come as a reminder that while cloud solutions have made it possible to weather the demands of social distancing in 2020, but as we continue to invest and rely on cloud computing technology, outages could increase in frequency and severity. Perhaps then it’s time to consider whether truly mission-critical applications should be on-premise with a hybrid cloud strategy.