Heroku Outage Sparks Debate on Error Messages

Can an error message make an outage worse? That was a topic of discussion Thursday following an outage at cloud infrastructure provider Heroku. The Platform as a Service (PaaS) provider blamed HTTP routing errors for the outage, which lasted more than two hours.

Developer Pardner Wynn took issue with the error messages displayed by Heroku during the downtime, which informed visitors to Heroku-hosted sites that an “application error” was causing problems with the site. Wynn noted that the error messages for problems at Heroku were identical to those that appear when an application isn’t working properly due to a coding issue.

“When you fail, you’re telling the world it is your customer’s fault,” Wynn wrote. “You apparently assume it has to be this way because many of your platform errors are indistinguishable from actual app errors, so you have no way to differentiate which error message to display.”

Wynn said Heroku should provide error message that differentiate between platform downtime and application issues. The issue prompted active discussion on Wynn’s blog and at Hacker News. A number of commenters argued that end users are more focusd on when the app will return than who is at fault.

“The people who care that it’s a Heroku issue not app issue (hint: not many) have probably already heard about the Heroku outage,” wrote Tom Robinson on the Hacker News thread. “Everyone else will be confused about what the hell this ‘Heroku’ thing is.”

Others said that uptime is ultimately the responsibility of the app developer, who can take steps to create failover options or custom error messages, which are available on Heroku. “It’s your fault for not having a fault tolerant site that runs on another service provider,” a commenter wrote on Wynn’s blog. “This is what happens when you put your eggs in one basket and that basket bursts into flames.”

But whatever you do, one commenter urged, don’t create a “cute” error message. “Why do web people insist on putting crap like ‘oops’ in error messages?” wrote Sten Frigs. “It’s not cute, it’s irritating and unprofessional. If a word in your error message doesn’t directly convey information, get it the hell off my screen.”

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About the Author

Rich Miller is the founder and editor at large of Data Center Knowledge, and has been reporting on the data center sector since 2000. He has tracked the growing impact of high-density computing on the power and cooling of data centers, and the resulting push for improved energy efficiency in these facilities.

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