"We've heard lots of great feedback about the desire for more public transparency," said Jake Zborowski, group product manager for Office 365, who described the change as an effort to build strong communications mechanisms and foster trust within the growing customer base of the two-year-old service.
Zborowski characterized Office 365's availability over the past four quarters as "great." Specifically, the worldwide uptime averages for Office 365 during the last four quarters from July 2012 through June 2013 were 99.98%, 99.97%, 99.94% and 99.97% respectively.
Microsoft promises 99.9% availability for its Office 365 business customers through a Service Level Agreement.
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Gartner analyst Matt Cain in an email said the announcement was long overdue. "Up until now, Office 365 prospects have had difficulty getting this data, making it hard to make an informed decision," he said. "Customers and prospects, however, should treat this data with care. Because the data is rolled up quarterly (as opposed to monthly), and because it covers multiple workloads and the three vertical market instances -- .gov, .edu and .com – it is a very large-grain data point. Individual organizations can and will sustain outages. But on the whole, the numbers do indicate an acceptable degree of reliability."
Indeed, transparency has its limits. In April, Derik VanVleet, a solutions engineer at Cloud Sherpas, a provider of Google Apps integration, took Microsoft to task over the downtime of Office 365 Exchange, compared to Google Apps Gmail, during a 151-day period.
Although VanVleet's figures favored Gmail over Office 365 Exchange, what emerged was just how difficult it is to make fair comparisons between cloud services because companies count things differently. Asked about the post, Microsoft said at the time, "Unlike Google, we also count issues for any number of impacted users not just if 'enough' users are impacted." Microsoft, however, doesn't count planned downtime in its totals, and Zborowski said the company has no plan to publish that number, which he insisted was "very minimal." Google promises its business customers zero downtime for maintenance. Complicating the picture further, actual downtime figures vary for each customer.
Microsoft's decision to publish quarterly availability figures addresses VanVleet's objections in part, but not completely: The company continues to limit access to its Service Health Dashboard to its customers, on the basis that the information provided is relevant to each customer specifically. Google's App Status Dashboard, which presents generalized data, is publicly accessible.
Although uptime transparency helps potential customers assess before buying, incident transparency matters at least as much to existing customers. So it's to Microsoft's credit that the company promises to share post-incident reviews of major service incidents with affected organizations.
A Microsoft spokeswoman said that Office 365 is "on track to be one of the fastest-growing business products in Microsoft history," a not particularly meaningful assertion without knowing either how many other business products are in the race or the criteria for membership in the groups "fastest-growing" and "not fastest-growing." If Office 365 is the fourth fastest-growing business product in a field of, say, five, is it still one of the fastest-growing business products?
Nonetheless, Office 365 is growing. Microsoft says the service is now generating revenue at a rate of $1.5 billion annually, which is up from the $1 billion annual run rate cited by the company in May. The company also announced a new enterprise customer, IAG, the parent company of British Airways and Iberia.
Whether such growth will continue in light of whistleblower Edward Snowden's revelations about the extent of data gathering by the National Security Agency (NSA) remains to be seen. According to a report released earlier this month by the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, the U.S. cloud computing industry could lose anywhere from $22 to $35 billion over the next three years because businesses fear their data will not be safe from prying eyes if stored remotely.