Idiot-Proofing, Dropbox and the GFW

dropbox blocked in chinaMost folks can only count on death and taxes. If you are managing a startup, then you get a bonus — you can count on death, taxes and at least one system failure a week.

By necessity, most startups run on the cheap. We forgo expensive systems and big teams in favour of lightweight, low-cost solutions that keep our fixed costs down and keep our companies “agile,” “lean,” or one of the many other euphemisms for flimsy. If you have been working at this game long enough, however, you will learn that running things lean may save you costs, but it can also end up wasting your time, unless you can find some low-cost ways to build in redundancy.

Today at RightSite we were deprived of one of our major systems when the file-sharing service Dropbox was suddenly blocked by the infamous Great Firewall of China (GFW).  We regularly use Dropbox as a combination of online backup and file sharing.  The service allows us to collaborate on files, such as editing the stories for our website, without having a physical file-server in our office or relying on emailing files back and forth.

Of course, we could rely on other services such as Google Docs, but the immense popularity of Docs means that it has always been too tempting of a target for potential blocking, so we have steered away from it for this reason.  Dropbox was innocuous and, I would have hoped, obscure enough to avoid the wrath of the authorities.  However, it seems we were wrong.  I don’t know what exactly the issue is, and no statement has been issued about the blocking (there never is) but I suspect that some naughty individuals were using the service to share anti-government materials.

gfw blocks filesharing site in ChinaDoes the government have a legitimate beef with Dropbox?  Probably not.  But you have to remember that decisions on what gets blocked are not made at the politburo level. Nope.  It’s some little guy in a room someplace who probably has never heard of online backup, or even offline.  He just knows that somebody somewhere did something bad using Dropbox, so he hits the big BLOCK! button and you wake up with one of your favorite resources unavailable.

For the guys who work at big companies, this is just another thing to moan about in the bar, but if you are running your own company then this kind of down-time can mean a loss that you can’t afford. So we have to look for cheap ways to build redundancy into our systems. By planning for alternate backup and filesharing systems in advance, at RightSite we already have Jungledisk installed on all of our workstations to replace Dropbox.  Now we are busy looking at Opera Unite as a new alternate system.

So while the finance guys and bloggers will keep telling you to keep your company running on the cheap to make it financially viable, you will also have to look for ways to ensure that your company just keeps running when things go wrong. By the way, today is the day that we produce our weekly newsletter at RightSite.  Because we have alternate systems at the ready, our newsletter will get distributed tomorrow morning on schedule. Our customers are counting on it, so we are glad to have systems (and planning) that we can count on.

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