Do downtime numbers really tell the story?

Four million days. That’s a mighty big number. And we’re talking about only one month’s worth of cumulative downtime for an estimated 51.3 million active Web sites, according to calculations noodled out by Pingdom, an uptime-monitoring company based in Sweden.

Four million days. One month. Wow.

But there’s more to this fun-with-big-numbers exercise than wow. Take 99.73, for example: That’s the average uptime for the typical site, Pingdom says; put another way, downtime averages one minute shy of two hours per site for the month. But what’s that mean? Good? Bad? Indifferent?

“In a 31-day month like March, one hour and 59 minutes equals 99.73 percent uptime,” the company says on its blog. “That is fine for something noncritical, but it could be an expensive affair for a commercial Web site. It should also be noted that since this is an average number, some Web sites have no downtime at all, while others have a lot more. It’s also interesting to note that many Web hosting companies offer a 99.9 percent uptime guarantee, which is the equivalent of 44 minutes of downtime in a month. Web sites on average are obviously not reaching these uptime numbers.”

And not only is that costing companies revenue, it’s taking a bite in terms of unpleasant public relations. Take Bank of America, for example. Pingdom called out the bank for particularly poor performance late last year. Intuit’s Turbo Tax was in a shambles at the wrong time, the deadline for filing. Google Apps and also have found themselves on the wrong side of bad headlines recently, with the latter’s troubles prompting Gartner’s John Pescatore to suggest that such shoddy service should be treated as one (not me) might treat a yet-to-be-housebroken puppy: that is, rolled-up newspaper to the nose.

Last month’s most notable downtime, of course, belonged to Research in Motion and its legion of BlackBerry “addicts.” Here are two of the more memorable tales of woe that I came across:

Frank James of the Chicago Tribune’s Washington bureau wrote: “The nation’s capital is a city that runs on BlackBerrys. They’re pervasive on Capitol Hill, at the White House, throughout the bureaucracy, and in the newsrooms…If Al Qaeda wanted to bring this city to its knees, it could not have come up with a better stratagem.”

And then there was this tale of romantic unrest: Rafael Paz, a loss control specialist for a car rental agency, wrote just as the smoke was clearing that he had been “getting my e-mails about one to four hours late minimum since yesterday.” And it wasn’t just loss control that suffered, Paz noted: “I’ve been getting grief about it from my now ex-girlfriend thanks to this delay. She thought I was ignoring her e-mails when I was receiving them hours late…We got into a really bad argument earlier in the day. She sent me a few e-mails and when I didn’t respond right away, she thought I was ignoring her and called it off. I didn’t get the e-mail it was over until around 2 a.m. today.”

Not knowing what else to say, I suggested this might be covered by his BlackBerry service-level agreement. His reply: “I’ll call RIM and tell them to give me an upgrade on a new girlfriend.”

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