A prolonged, Gmail outage has Google Apps administrators pulling their hair out as users bombard the company with complaints.

On Wednesday evening, Google announced in the official Google Apps discussion forum that the company was aware of a problem preventing Gmail users from logging into their accounts and that it expected a solution by Thursday evening.

Google offered no explanation as to what is causing the problem nor as to why it will take the company so long to solve the problem, which manifests itself by giving Gmail users a "502" error when trying to access their e-mail accounts.

Although Google said the bug is affecting "a small number of users," that is little comfort for Google Apps administrators who are fielding angry complaints from end users.

An administrator identified as Bill W. posted a desperate message on the forum Thursday morning, saying his company's CEO is steaming about being locked out of his email account .

"Support keeps telling me it is affecting a small number of users. This is not a temporary problem if it
lasts this long. It is frustrating to not be able to expedite these issues. I have to speak with the boss again and he's po'd (pissed off). This is considered a mission critical issue here. We may have to make other arrangements. Apparently Google mail is not very reliable. I think I would have pushed for something else before we switched if I had known the level of unreliability," he wrote.

Another administrator identified as Techlinks wrote: "This outage has hit us pretty hard and we've been out of email for 24 hours and now business is suffering."

Google Apps is a suite of hosted collaboration and communication software and services designed for workplace use. Its Premier edition costs US$50 per user per year and includes a 99.9 percent uptime guarantee for the Gmail service.

In August, Gmail had three significant outages that affected not only individual consumers of the free webmail service but also paying Google Apps Premier customers. As a result, Google decided to extend a credit to all Apps Premier customers and vowed to improve its problem-notification methods.

"We're committed to making Google Apps Premier Edition a service on which your organization can depend. During the first half of August, we didn't do this as well as we should have," Google said a letter sent to Apps administrators at the time.

One outage, on 11 August, lasted about two hours but affected almost all Apps Premier users. The other two, on 6 August and 15 August, hit a small number of Apps Premier users, but both outages were lengthy, lasting for some affected users more than 24 hours. In all of the incidents, users were unable to access their Gmail accounts, getting instead an error message when trying to log in. It seems the tech gremlins that caused the problems in August are back again.

Google Apps is the poster child for the wave of SaaS web hosted office productivity and communications suites that are emerging as options to traditional on-premise options like Microsoft's Office and Exchange/Outlook.

SaaS suites like Google Apps have become popular because customers don't need to install them on their own PCs and servers, something that in theory reduces the effort and cost of software installation and maintenance. These SaaS applications are also designed from the ground up for web-based collaboration of workgroups.

However, a major concern and objection to SaaS applications is their performance and availability, since they're provided by the vendor via the Internet and accessed by end users through browsers. When the applications become slow or altogether unavailable due to problems in the vendors' data centres, IT administrators have little to do but sit and wait for the problem to be fixed. This often creates extremely stressful and tense situations for them if the outages are prolonged and their end users become angry.

"The issue affecting a small number of Gmail users is being addressed, and many users have already had their service restored. All affected users should have their service back online today, if not already restored," a Google spokesman said.

"We know how important Gmail is to our users, so we take issues like this very seriously, and we apologise for the inconvenience. We encourage anyone having technical difficulty to visit the Gmail or Google Apps discussion groups where we're posting status updates," he said.