Lowered Expectations — Declining Web Application Reliability

I spent much of Wednesday in Pearson Airport’s decrepit (but soon tobe demolished in the staggeringly expensive upgrade of the entire airport) Terminal2, wondering what the deal was with our flight that wassupposed to be boarding.

The help desk sat vacant — as it had for hours — andthe nearest information board was literally about 1300 feet down awalkway towards the terminal hub. I’d made this walk several times(for epic adventures such as the “going to buy a bottle ofwater, because the change machine down here is broken and I didn’tdare try bringing change through airport security because I haveenough junk to worry about already” journey) and it was reallystarting to get old.

There was approximately one (1) dual-outlet power gangplate inthe entire facility — which I managed to win from a gaggle ofnervous-eyed crackberry users, all of us desperately fightingfor the ability to siphon some precious electrons (I like tocall it “invisible oil“) into our drained batteries.

Yet despite this seeming hostility towards the accoutrements ofmodern life, the facility is surprizingly equipped with ubiquitous,free wireless.

The wireless allowed me to make a secure VPN connectionelsewhere (I wouldn’t trust anything over an unencrypted channel onpublic wireless), actually making use of the time to get some workdone. It really is empowering checking code out of and into TeamFoundation Services, doing database changes, and then rolling outdeployments, all from some random chair in some random airport.

It also allowed me to visit Air Canada’s website to check on thestatus of the flight.

Whoops, maybe not. Looks like there was some sort of java erroron their middleware (which I know because they strangely feed theentire error stack to end users, rather than having a moreprofessionally refined default error page). This stayed this wayfor as long as I bothered to continue checking, and made thewebsite completely useless for this task when I actually neededit.

Coming back on Thursday, a late night had me crunched for time,so I wanted to check the schedule for New Jersey Transit’s train toNewark Airport from New York’s Penn Station. Just needed to knowwhen I needed to catch one — I’d never been on it before, and hadno idea what the frequency was — and how long it’d take.

No dice.

The online train schedule information system was down. Justhad to hoof it and hope. Luckily there was one in the station,ready to go. Maybe there’s always one queued, but I wouldn’t knowit from their information system.

Today I wanted to order a gift from the Future Shop’s website.After a detailed error message, it then flipped to a messageproclaiming that they were doing “routine maintenance”.

Then there are the amateurish downtimes that have occurredon some of the large meme sites, when moves or upgrades that shouldbe seamless end up causing hours of outages. I’m a huge fan ofFlickr, but even their recent moves were far more disruptive thanthey should have been (though they certainly have muchmore of a justification — namely petabytes of pictures on a toptier website — than some jokers running a “lists of links” typewebsite).

These are hardly isolated incidents, and I’m not trying to pickon particular organizations. It just happens to be the most recentfrustrating demonstration that the web isn’t where it should be,and far too many teams consider reliability to be much less of aconcern than it rightly should be.

I’ve been doing software for long enough to know that fewsystems are foolproof, and that sometimes eventualities conspireagainst the best laid plans of the most considerate, skillful worldclass teams, but these sorts of should-be-exception situations arehappening with increasing frequency.

Despite all of the improvements in computer science, and theadvances in the platforms that we’re developing against, the netdirection seems to be downwards, with reliability apparently comingafter all else.

This isn’t a good trend.

QuickNotes

Office 2007 is quite nice, though from my experience it’s alittle bit unstable. Between Word crashing while attempting to usethe blog editing functionality, and Excel crashing at the oddest oftimes (the same experience being had on two completely differentmake and model of machines, with very different software stacks andfew commonalities), it seems to be a fairly regular occurence.Finally the blog functionality in Word just stopped workingaltogether. On the bright side the document recovery is extremelycapable, and I’ve never lost even a keystroke of typing, as itseems to be keeping a realtime backup going.