A year ago, an outage like the one Zoom experienced Monday would have largely gone-unnoticed. The now-popular video conferencing platform had yet to become a mainstay of work-from-home employees forced out of the office by the Covid-19 pandemic.
But the three-hour outage this week that took the company’s meeting and webinar services offline highlights the fact that enterprise tech outages no longer just affect white-collar workers.
Though some users across the U.S. and parts of Europe took to social media to express relief at missing on-camera meetings, key workers and front-line users such as teachers – who remain heavily reliant on video conferencing to get work done – found themselves unable to perform their jobs.
Zoom did not explain what caused the outage, saying on its status page only that it had found the issue and resolved it. Downdector.com, which tracks various tech outages, showed the spike in problems on Monday that arose when the platform problems began.
It's unclear how many organisations, companies and school districts were affected. But users took to Twitter to voice annoyance that they could not access the platform. Given that many schools in the U.S. have moved to online learning, the outage was especially problematic on what was often the first day of school.
For example, the University of Iowa reported 1,359 meetings had been scheduled to take place during the outage, according to the Des Moines Register. Planned online classes for students in the Rio Grandes Valley area of Texas were also affected. And schools and universities in Atlanta, Durham, N.C. and Pennsylvania State University all reported problems, according to the Washington Post.
One teacher in Memphis, Tenn. who asked to be identified only by her first name, Amber, said the outage caused students to miss out on two classes, including a homeroom session meant to set them up for the day, check on their health and well-being, and focus on social-emotional learning.
Her school began using Zoom earlier this month, opting for the platform because of the in-meeting features it provided to meeting hosts – in this case, teachers.
“I believe we made the switch to Zoom because it offers more robust features than Microsoft Teams - breakout rooms, it’s more aligned with our classroom presentation software of NearPod (an interactive lesson platform) and it allows us to control muting/unmuting as well as renaming of students as participants, unlike Google Meet,” Amber said.
When the outage hit, Amber said teachers at her school were told to post a self-paced NearPod lesson for students to complete for a grade – and to make sure they were available via Google Meet for any questions or concerns from students.
While the school was able to put together an alternate plan, there was no formal process in place for an outage and no communication when teachers started experiencing difficulties right before home room.
“Teachers largely were left to themselves before a formal announcement was made, already through home room and another period of class, so they had made their own workarounds. It would have gone much more smoothly had we previously figured out what to do, pre-created self-paced lessons, and utilised those - without the expectation of last-minute changes,” Amber said.
“Zoom’s outage forced me to change my plans for the day and then, to continue to minimise uneven instruction for students throughout the day, stick to a less engaging lesson so that we can resume the following day,” she added.
Developing a contingency plan
The ability to shift business processes during an outage is even more important now that workers are scattered than it might have been in the past. That's especially true for companies that have had to build processes on the fly amid the pandemic.
When countries first went into lockdown in the spring, said Chris Weston, a principal in European advisory at IDC EMEA, there was a definite “coping” stage where companies shifted to whatever tools they had available or could procure easily and cheaply. That was followed by a consolidation stage, where security and resilience were reviewed.
Weston, who has spoken to numerous organisations over the past six months about collaboration tools and video conferencing strategies, noted that a lot of platforms suffered glitches as demand outstripped capacity.
The unprecedented nature of the pandemic meant most companies were tolerant of problems, willing to overlook small, unobtrusive issues around functionality because they needed these platforms in place for employees.
Research by 451 Research S&P Global Market intelligence showed that while some businesses faced a steep learning curve and performance issues early in the shutdown, two out of three businesses (64 per cent) now feel they can function beyond six months without a major disruption. That figure is up from 49 per cent in March.
In other words, companies saw the need to be flexible and have found ways of doing so.
“People have learned to be more resilient and turn to their own unofficial tools if the 'official' ones let them down," he said. "They go to Google Meet or FaceTime and WhatsApp if they need to.
“Organisations should be asking their staff and teams to think about how they will manage if the official tools aren’t available for a period of time and to suggest some alternatives – I think the command-and-control, ‘This is how it’s done' style will lose out to empowering people to use the right tools for them, within reason,” Weston said.
Raul Castanon, senior analyst in workforce productivity and collaboration at 451 Research S&P Global Market intelligence, said that companies with multiple communications and collaboration tools in place got to that point because of organic growth, not necessarily because they sought redundancy to handle unexpected outages.
“Organisations are looking to streamline and eliminate redundancies in their collaboration platforms, but given the number of employees now working remotely, these have become critical for business continuity,” Castanon said.
“This will put more pressure on vendors to provide a higher level of reliability. Zoom is already taking steps in that direction with Oracle Cloud. For organisations, this will likely result in the need to be more methodical about having redundant systems in place.”
While unofficial tools might provide viable workarounds for office workers – it’s perfectly normal to catch up with a colleague by phone – That's not always the case. Teachers, for example, would not be able to teach a lesson over WhatsApp and could only turn to a platform like Google Meet if the school has a license for it and pupils can access the tool.
Amber teaches in a primarily low-income, mostly Black and Latinx high school where some students do not have a dedicated workspace to themselves to log in.
Other students are still working or have family obligations, including looking after younger siblings during school hours. Still others communicate primarily in a language than English and can struggle with understanding basic directions written over email.
For students like this, any major disruptions to the school day can have a significant impact on their ability to learn. Not only are they missing lessons in the short term, but those with challenging home lives are less likely to be able to catch up or have access to alternate platforms to facilitate learning by other means.
Castanon believes that the Zoom outage will lead to a surge of demand for vendors focusing on distance learning and, although Zoom has already targeted that segment, most schools would likely benefit from a platform that offers a more focused approach to learning.
“Unfortunately, given its nature, the transition to distance learning will probably take longer than that of remote working and this will likely have an impact for students,” he said. “Schools might need the entire school year to figure things out; this is assuming that all students have similar learning conditions, i.e. internet access and computers or tablets for home schooling.”
Amber hopes the outage will lead to her school putting a more definitive action plan in place. That also includes hardware – the Chromebooks her school provided are unable to run Zoom for all students, along with presentation software and NearPod, without overheating, turning off, or experiencing video and audio problems.
As for the platform itself, Castanon points out that Zoom has skill fully addressed several major challenges this year, including a surge in demand – and has come out better positioned to grow.
“While it may end up losing some customers along the way, I think the company has proven it can overcome these issues better than most,” he said.