AOL refusing new accounts thanks to FUBAR server

The once almighty online giant America Online – AOL – seems to be having serious server problems that have been going on for about a week and making it seemingly impossible to sign up to the company’s free services.

AOL not only fired a boatload of employees at the beginning fof the year, but we learned this week it’s also losing some of its web journalists, too. But little has been said of how many key technical personnel were lost as part of AOL’s recent and past lay-offs, and how critical those assets were to the company.

While the firm has been busy “restructuring its media brands” and the press was assured that no more heads will roll, we wonder if perhaps somewhere along the way, the top brass at AOL lost track of what keeps tech firms up and running, namely the IT folks operating its servers and infrastructure.

No new accounts for you!
Since Wednesday of last week, when we found about the problem, the AIM web page has been refusing new accounts. Actually, to be precise it’s not exactly politely refusing anything – the server is simply not working and showing an error message instead of a sign-up form. All links labelled “get a Username” which point to the domain name which gives the user a rather unfriendly message: “unused. The server encountered an internal error or misconfiguration and was unable to complete your request.”

On last Wednesday we thought this was a temporary misconfiguration. By Friday, we thought they would be fixing it over the weekend. By Monday we were scratching our heads… and today, we decided to find out what AOL has to say.

For the record, this scribbler has tried clicking on the sign up link from two different ISPs, at different times, different days, with multiple browsers. The result was the same: a server misconfiguration error message.

Thinking that AOL’s own AIM software might provide a different path to the AOL back-end to create new accounts, we quickly found out that when it comes to creating new accounts, AOL’s desktop software just loads and displays the web sign-up page inside a program window, as the same error message was briefly flashed before returning to the initial screen.

Server monitoring and automated alerts, they’ve heard of them
A server hiccup or misconfiguration would be no news story, but rather an anecdote, had it been solved by AOL’s internal IT staff in a matter of hours or even a couple of days.

But like we said, this AOL server has been FUBAR since last Wednesday. It makes one think that the firm is unaware of the problem, or that if it is, it’s having a hard time fixing it. Not to mention that any automated monitoring or daily statistics would be telling the powers that be that new AIM and AOL free accounts have suddenly gone to zero new registrations.

According to Netcraft’s query service, the host name runs the firms’ own AOLServer, and has been doing so since time immemorial.

Back when AOL had a software strategy
Back in the days of Steve Case, the firm was full of IT activity and software development on its own, from the purchase of Netscape, to the backing of, and the release of its own web server software – AOLServer – as open source, just a decade ago, which is surprisingly still alive and kicking.

Nowadays, while it struggles to find a new meaning for the brand, AOL seems to be concerned with hiring financial advisers, in a line that seems to be taken from Michael Moore’s “Capitalism, a Love Story” film.

Truth be told, AOL is not only hiring financial gurus but also snapping up some Yahoo execs, too, but there’s little mention about IT jobs which should be key to a firm that does its business over the Net.

AOL? Why care?
The joy of the firm’s free web offerings – after the move from walled garden online services to open web content – was its “single sign on” or common screen name.

So, like in Gmail, signing up for AIM instant messenger meant you also get a free IMAP standard email account with a domain name or, that works just fine with Mozilla’s Thunderbird or your favourite standards-compliant email client or mobile device.

In this scribbler’s case, AIM’s IMAP email is a way to avoid the risk of having all my eggs in one Google basket, so to speak. Not to mention the convenience of the small, three-letter domain name.

Three years ago the firm moved its HQ to New York, and a year later sold one of its three American data centres in Northern Virginia. One has to wonder if this apparent detachment of the company’s top brass from the IT infrastructure that keeps it going is more than geographical, but mental as well. Otherwise it’s hard to explain how a sign up page could be down for a week without a fix.

We contacted two people who used to work maintaining AOL’s infrastructure and who are no longer at the firm, but they were nice enough not to talk to us.

AOL’s partying Londoners need not worry, but over there in Virginia, perhaps the firm would be doing better if it actually hired some IT staff to keep its servers up and running.