This week, the South Korean Ministry for Science and ICT published its report on the fire which brought down Kakao's key KakaoTalk app. It pulls no punches, and lays the blame squarely on both Kakao and SK C&C for their poor preparation. And Kakao has responded, with a (somewhat vague) promise to spend money, get its act together, and increase resilience.
Someone else who should be paying attention to the report is OVHcloud, the French cloud provider whose Strasbourg data center SBG2 burnt down in 2021. The allegations that have swirled around OVHcloud are strikingly similar to those leveled against Kakao, but there's a big difference.
The South Korean government report has come out less than two months after the incident. In the case of OVHcloud, we have waited ten times that long (more than 20 months), and still there has been no final report on what went wrong in Strasbourg.
It's tempting to put this down to a difference in politics, and perhaps a difference in the expectations placed on the different providers. KakaoTalk is almost unknown outside of the APAC region, but within Korea, it is absolutely crucial to many aspects of society, with KakaoTalk identities used to authenticate transactions in a horde of other third-party applications for travel, transport, and banking among other things.
From this distance, it's hard to judge the impact of the KakaoTalk outage, but local commentators called the incident a "digital blackout" and vast numbers are calling for compensation for the loss and damage it caused.
The app really was dominant, with 45 million active users in a company of only 51.8 million. KakaoTalk was used by Kakao's own apps such as the Uber-equivalent Kakao T, and the GPS location service Kakao Map, as well as a plethora of other third-party applications.
A digital certificate from Kakao is recognized by these digital government services, as well as banks and brokerages, including the Financial Supervisory Service and the National Pension Service.
Its role became even more central during the pandemic. “Kakao apps play a quasi-governmental role in the country, in handling the Covid-19 pandemic," said Kim Good-hyun. KakaoTalk worked with the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency, and provided in-app features such as vaccine certificates, which became essential to users' lives, as they were checked at supermarkets and restaurants.
Kim suggests that KakaoTalk filled a gap left by inefficient government services.
Commentators are calling into question the country's willingness to reply on one dominant "super app" has been called into question. "While a Facebook or WhatsApp outage might have a similar impact in other countries, KakaoTalk’s tight grip on various aspects of life in South Korea means the consequences can be direr when it stops working," commented Yim Hyun-su in the Korea Herald
By contrast, OVHcloud does not have anything like that dominant position. Instead, France and the European Union are backing it as a challenger to those ubiquitous providers of online identity, Google, Facebook, and the like.
A year-and-a-half on from the SBG2 fire, OVHcloud has not faced any serious government response. It has been able to delay its own report into the incident, apparently indefinitely. Originally, it claimed it must delay until "official reports" emerge.
During the course of 2022, we have now seen multiple official reports into the incident, from accident investigators BEA-R and the local Bas-Rhin firefighters. Both are damning of OVHcloud, saying that, among other things, SBG2 had wooden floors and no fire prevention system, and that water was detected near electrical systems.
Instead of facing the severe scrutiny imposed on Kakao, OVHcloud has been given a €200 million loan from the European Investment Bank, to build up its international business.
The difference between the two cases is clear.
Kakao's outage damaged South Korea, and further failures would harm the Korean economy. The provider is not seen as a major exporter of services, beyond the Korean audience across APAC.
OVHcloud's fire, on the other hand, caused local damage to individual customers, but the company does not have the kind of penetration where its failure would cause really widespread damage.
Meanwhile, the company is seen as key to European hopes of competing with the US (and maybe Chinese) cloud giants that have an international cloud. The financial and reputation hit to the company, which might be caused by a severe reprimand and a large compensation bill, could dent those hopes.
KakaoTalk was given too big a role, and became too important to allow to fail.
Maybe OVHcloud has too many hopes riding on it, to be allowed to suffer the consequences of its failure.