America Online tries to reclaim its image Oops: After some logistical difficulties, reporters hear America Online's explanation of why the Aug. 7 blackout occurred and why it shouldn't happen again.

August 20, 1996|By Timothy J. Mullaney | Timothy J. Mullaney,SUN STAFF

SOMEWHERE IN NORTHERN VIRGINIA -- As Rod Serling might say, imagine this...

You are an executive of America Online Inc. You have called a press briefing to show reporters the data network center from which you fought your company's world-famous, worldwide Aug. computer crash. You are seeking to convince the assembled scribes that the event was an aberration, that the world's biggest online service is actually quite reliable and getting better.

And the reporters, all but the one from Business Week, are late. Five of them are in the parking lot across the street from your unmarked building -- because your public relations staff gave them all wrong directions. And the one from USA Today is patiently waiting for a live person to rescue his cell phone from voice mail Hades and tell them all where to go.

So it began yesterday as the Dulles, Va.-based online giant campaigned to reclaim its image in the wake of the blackout. Operations Vice President Matt Korn spent two hours explaining what went wrong and why it shouldn't happen again, along the way disclosing once-confidential reliability data that industry experts said show that AOL has gotten a bum rap.

"It's the little things that get you, and that's what happened to them," said David Flanagan, marketing director for ClarkNet Internet Services Inc. in Columbia. "They do have an impressive network, and they do have their act together."

Korn's point was that America Online's reliability stats have been getting steadily better and that the company's networks are getting increasingly redundant, a move designed to provide backup so future problems don't interrupt service to customers.

To prove it, he hauled out a chart of AOL's downtime for the last 13 months, which showed the system's unplanned downtime was less than two hours a month every month through July. Planned outages for maintenance, which usually are set for the dead of night, were down from about 3.5 percent of the time last August to three-fourths of 1 percent in July.

Then there was the chart for August, when the 17-hour unplanned blackout hit at the end of the planned two-hour outage to upgrade the system to serve more customers. "August is what it is," Korn said. "The trend is good, and it denies the common folklore."

He said reliability should get better because AOL is building a third domestic data center in Sterling, Va., that will open next year and another center in Germany that will open late this year.

"This [building] was supposed to be the redundant data center," Korn said. AOL asked reporters not to say where the building is for security reasons.

AOL's growth to 6.2 million customers in the past two years, from 900,000 in mid-1994, pressed the company's second Northern Virginia center into a primary role sooner than anticipated.

The tour was only for press, but competitors and industry experts who heard the explanations second-hand said they passed muster. AOL's reliability figures "stack up incredibly well," said Tom Jenkins, a consultant with the Verona, N.J., firm TeleChoice Inc. "That to me is completely acceptable and is accepted [by customers]."

A spokesman for CompuServe Inc., AOL's biggest competitor in the online service industry, which combines raw Internet access with proprietary news, information and systems for electronic mail and cyberchat, didn't return a call.

Robert Seidman, editor of Seidman's Online Insider in Port Chester, N.Y., said Internet service providers are not likely to use AOL's outage successfully as a marketing tool -- or even to try very hard.

"It's the old glass-house thing," he said. "They all live in the same neighborhood."

Korn also didn't blink, standing around the conference table where one of two teams struggling to solve the outage worked frantically to fix the system not two weeks ago, when asked what it was like to be there when reporters were calling and the bosses were upset and the computer jocks couldn't even find the problem, let alone fix it.

"A collaboratively tense environment," he deadpanned.

Pub Date: 8/20/96

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