This past weekend, a horror scenario was unfolding as some Google Apps customers first experienced trouble logging in to their Gmail inboxes only to later find their email messages, labels, settings, chat logs, contacts and other content vaporized completely. Google Apps is a suite of familiar Google services – such as Gmail, Docs, Calendar and more – hosted on your own domain.

Google on its part claims the issue "affects less than .29 percent of the Google Mail userbase," translating into a whooping 500,000 user accounts. A few hours later they backpedalled with a new estimate of "less than 0.08 percent" of users, or about 150,000 user accounts. The search monster promised to restore missing messages soon. It’s unclear whether all Google Apps users have been plagued with the issue or just free accounts. Some of the affected customers reported reset accounts that reverted back to the state of a brand-new Gmail account, including a welcome message and default settings.

At the time of this writing Google sought to downplay the issue, failing to acknowledge service interruption on its three associated blogs, The Official Google Blog, The Official Apps Blog and The Official Gmail Blog. Signs of the incident can be traced back to the Gmail Help Forum which is full of reports from hundreds of affected users who report having lost all of their email correspondence. The Google Mail Status Dashboard which offers an at-a-glance overview of pending maintenance and service status reports reveals that Google is working hard to restore Gmail service for the affected customers:

Our team is continuing to investigate this issue. We will provide an update by February 28, 2011 4:00:00 PM UTC+1 with more information about this problem. Thank you for your patience.

Of course, the cryptic explanation is no consolation to customers who put their trust into Google’s hands and whose day-to-day business depends on a reliable cloud service. Recently BSN has made a switch to Google Apps. Apart from a few brief maintenance-related downtimes, our Gmail inboxes have not been affected by this issue.

Cases like this highlight the importance of having a backup strategy to keep your data safe, whether it resides in the cloud or locally on your computers. Google Apps customers are advised to invest in a third-party cloud backup solution (a good starting point is the Google Apps Marketplace). We are keen to recommend Backupify which uses the Amazon Web Services infrastructure to automatically and continuously back up Gmail, Docs, Sites, Calendar and Contacts data across all user accounts in your domain.

Even more important, if your business depends on a free of charge Google Apps account, you should consider switching to a paid-for Google Apps for Business account ($50 a year per seat). It comes with a 99.99 percent uptime guarantee, service level agreement, 24/7 phone and email support, 25GB inboxes, synchronous replication, Postini email retention for up to ten years and other perks that ensure your data is protected from the woes that sometimes affect free accounts due to teething problems and the lack of service level agreement.