Gmail went down yesterday for a relatively short period of time — service was intermittent for about an hour (compare that to the extended outage of 2009). However, this outage had an unexpected complication: It also caused the Google Chrome browser to crash.
On the surface, that appears very odd: Gmail is a service, but Chrome is an app. Sure, they’re both Google products, but they do different things — why would a hiccup in one affect the other?
It has to do with sync. If you log into Chrome with your Gmail address (and if you want to sync bookmarks, tabs and extensions, you need to), the app on your computer is now tied directly to Google’s servers. And, of course, so is Gmail.
According to a post on a Chrome developer forum, when Gmail went down, it set off a chain reaction that ended with the servers sending all client apps (i.e. the Chrome browser on millions of devices) a command they couldn’t process. The result: one of the biggest mass app crashes in history.
It all started with a simple human error, which Chrome developer “Tim” characterizes as a “faulty load-balancing configuration change” in a core part of the infrastructure of Google’s back-end servers. Those servers maintain Chrome sync, among many other services — including Gmail.
The crashes in Chrome, however, weren’t because the sync servers were suddenly unavailable (if they were, Chrome wouldn’t sync, but it also wouldn’t crash). Chrome crashed because the servers — which act as traffic cops for all the data being synced from Chrome clients all over the world — suddenly believed syncing traffic was through the roof. It looked like, to Chrome, the syncing equivalent of everyone flushing their toilets at once.
As a result, the sync servers then reacted “too conservatively” in Tim’s words, telling all Chrome clients to throttle all data types. However, not all versions of Chrome support all data types. Millions of Chrome browsers suddenly attempted to throttle data they couldn’t process in the first place. The result: crash city.
Could it happen again? You can bet Chrome’s engineers are working to ensure that it doesn’t. It should be pretty easy to change how the sync servers react to traffic problems. But it’s also a sobering reminder about how vulnerable to problems cloud software can be. If a key link in the chain — which users don’t even control — falters, everybody loses.
Has this crashing issue affected your confidence in Chrome or cloud software? Let us know in the comments.
Photo by Mashable
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