The 99.99% Uptime Gimmick

Like a porcupine with a peacock's tail, the ubiquitous uptime guarantee often flaunts its brightly colored digits around the home pages of web hosting companies. Prospective customers are seduced by the promise of reliability, only to be jabbed by the fine print quills of these legalese-laden monsters. Below are some of the more common problems encountered when dealing with uptime guarantees.

The psychological effect of the uptime guarantee is that it makes the consumer feel safe in doing business with the hosting provider. Percentage points and fractions thereof imply a certain level of scientific or mathematical rigor at work in producing the uptime guarantee. It is as if hosting companies want the consumer to think that they've earned the right to offer the guarantee by running the gauntlet of strenuous laboratory testing. Imagine the scene: in a clean room deep underground a pair of geeky types wearing white lab coats and carrying clipboards pace slowly around the humming, blinking server box, waiting for it to fail. Back here in reality there is no such testing going on. Hosting companies can (and often do) arbitrarily guarantee any reliability rating, up to and including 100% uptime.

While the strings of nines may sound too good to be true, the holy grail of 100% guaranteed uptime is simply ludicrous. For comparison, NASA demands a mere 99.999% reliability from their hardware vendors, and Sun Microsystems? $160,000 Netra FT line of servers achieves greater than 99.999% (but still less than 100%) uptime. Yet somehow hosting companies are willing to guarantee something they know they cannot provide. Furthermore, the fine print almost invariably allows for up to 20 minutes of downtime per month, effectively reducing the guarantee to a pointless tautology: "We guarantee that when we are not down, we will be up 100% of the time."

Many times, uptime guarantees are offered as "incentive" for the hosting company to do their job right. Why should the hosting company need additional incentive to do things correctly and keep their clients satisfied? Customer satisfaction and the resultant timely payment for services rendered should really be incentive enough.

Uptime guarantees normally provide little in the way of compensation for downtime, and present too many hoops for the client to jump through to obtain it. The uptime guarantee of one hosting company states that it does not apply to accounts hosted on systems using Microsoft Windows operating systems?. Apart from the obvious Microsoft joke therein, it makes you wonder why the company would use an OS that they have such little faith in. Understandably, this type of diligence protects the hosting company from unscrupulous clients looking to cash in on network burps, but it also gives the hosting company more "wiggle-room" in violating the spirit of the guarantee.

In short, uptime guarantees do not in any way ensure that your website will not go down. Rather than promising you the world should your site become inaccessible, a responsible hosting company should make you aware of what they do to prevent downtime. Failover systems, power backups, load balancing, and network clustering all go a long way toward minimizing downtime, and any reputable business should compensate the customer for poor service without the guarantee.


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