The New Year started abruptly for over 17,000 Hotmail users, who temporarily lost their email messages. Now the drama is over -- or at least this is what Microsoft says -- but the bitterness remains. Blame it on the cloud?

Every time a major email provider experiences outages or problems of any kind that affect its service, the Web gets overwhelmed by angry users. Gmail had many such problems over the years, Yahoo has also seen its share of trouble. The latest email provider on the list is Windows Live, better known as Hotmail (site, news).

Emails Evaporating in the Cloud

When, on December 30, 2010, Hotmail users logged into their accounts, there was an unpleasant surprise for some of them -- their emails had vanished into thin air. I guess that many thought that this must be a hacking issue but the explanation is much more prosaic -- a load balancing issue between the servers in the cloud led to data loss.

The loss of emails didn't affect all Hotmail users. Only about 17,000 of them had been affected. Sure, this is a small fraction of all more than 360 million registered Hotmail users but for those, whose emails were inaccessible this wasn't much of a comfort. For those who use Hotmail are their primary email or even worse -- the only email account -- it must have been a tough New Year's celebration.

What really made the affected users furious was the fact that no official response was available for long hours. The response of the support team at Windows Live was anything but useful and it is this inadequate reaction that drove thousands of users mad.

The Outage – A Load Balancing Issue

As it turned out, the reason for the outage was in the cloud. With previous Windows Live outages, which happen now and then, the reasons were similar. However, what was different this time was the duration -- most of the previous outages lasted hours or a day at most, this one took 3 days to fix. The affected accounts were restored to their pre-outage state in the evening on January 2, 2011 and the drama officially ended.

The officially disclosed reason on the Windows Team blog for the latest outage was that it was due to “mailbox load balancing between servers.” However, for all those users who lived through stressful couple of days mourning their emails, this episode will be a bad memory for the rest of the year.

There is no 100 percent reliable service but every reminder that your emails can easily fly away into the clouds, makes you ask questions such as how safe your content is when it is in the hands of third parties, even if it's experienced ones like Microsoft.