iPhone 3.0 push notifications, will Apple’s infrastructure be able to keep up?

The iPhone 3.0 update is almost here now. One of the features that we and many others have been looking forward to the most is the new push notification service from Apple. We are also curious about how reliable push notifications will be.

Why do we wonder about reliability? Because push notifications are sent from third-party servers to Apple’s servers, and then on to your iPhone.

In short: Apple becomes a single point of failure since it acts as a go-between for all push notifications.


Above: Just imagine the go-between Apple Push Notification Service failing…

Apple not only has to make sure that notifications are delivered, it has to make sure that your iPhone gets them in a timely manner. The real-time demands of the new feature may reveal weaknesses in Apple’s backend infrastructure.

A scalability challenge for Apple

Considering that the push feature is set to become highly popular and will be used by a lot of iPhone applications, this will result in an abundance of push notifications that have to pass through Apple’s servers. Apple will have to make sure its service can scale to handle this additional stress on its systems.

Remember that Apple had significant problems when it launched the MobileMe service (as Steve Jobs admitted). The push notification service is essentially a new web service, so hopefully Apple has learnt from past mistakes and has its backend infrastructure well prepared.

Developer trust

If Apple fails to provide reliable push notifications, even just intermittently, it will result in some serious trust issues from third-party iPhone developers.

While a few delayed (or even worse, undelivered) notifications may not be a big deal for many applications, it will be absolutely critical for some applications that notifications are delivered reliably and on time.

For example, we’ll be looking into using push notifications for our own Pingdom iPhone application down the line, so reliable notifications will be important to us. In our case it would be alerts that your website has gone down, information you would be pretty upset about missing or getting late. We’re sure there are plenty of other applications where the damage done by missed notifications would be significant as well.

In other words, it becomes a matter of credibility and trust, and Apple is going to have to earn it.

On the plus side, Apple is planning ahead

Let’s face it, the engineers at Apple must be well aware of the challenges they are facing. We just hope that they are able to deliver. We love the iPhone (most of us have one), and we want this to be a successful feature launch.

Thankfully it seems that Apple is not resting on its laurels. One good sign that Apple is taking some serious steps in bettering its infrastructure is the recently announced plan for a new billion-dollar data center the United States.

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