ChrisWeigant.com

Obamacare Website's Upcoming Spike

[ Posted Wednesday, November 13th, 2013 – 16:36 PST ]

The first figures are out for the number of people who have successfully used the Obamacare website to buy insurance, and it is no surprise to anyone by now that they fell far short of the expectations drawn up before the website's launch. The website is undergoing intensive repair efforts, with the target of being up and running for most users by the end of this month. Doubts exist as to whether that target will be met, but there's a whole lot of wiggle room in that word "most," so undoubtedly both sides will spin whatever happens to present it in the worst or best light possible. But what few seem to be talking about is what will happen next -- in the first two weeks of December. Which could be even worse than the initial rollout, as hard as that is to believe.

The website's problems fall into two main categories. There are performance problems and there are functional problems. The functional problems are bugs in the design (or programmatic coding) where the site doesn't do what it is supposed to do. These are often tough to fix and may require extensive rewriting of the software, sometimes from the ground up. The Obama White House says they are making progress on fixing these, and I've heard that "six out of ten" such problems have been addressed. This isn't too bad a number, and seems to be at least reasonably on track to hit their end-of-the-month deadline to fix most all of the problems (or at least the biggest ones).

But the performance problems should be seen as extremely worrisome, at this point, for anyone rooting for the website to succeed (or even "work as designed"). Performance problems can often be fixed easily (if expensively) by just "throwing more servers at the problem." Adding hardware to improve the ability to handle more simultaneous use is a fairly easy fix, as these things go (although, as mentioned, it can get expensive when you need to add hundreds of servers to fix the problem).

But creating an enormous server farm (yes, that actually is the correct term) only works as well as the software that performs the "load balancing" which directs the incoming traffic to different servers. And it sounds like the load balancing part of the software is as bad as the rest. From a story in the Washington Post today:

The insurance exchange is balking when more than 20,000 to 30,000 people attempt to use it at the same time -- about half its intended capacity, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to disclose internal information.

What this means is that the fairly simple expedient of throwing servers at the problem has not worked. And this is not just troublesome for the system right now, it could lead to absolute disaster in the first weeks of December.

To understand the danger, take a look at a chart displaying the signup rate when Massachusetts started up what we now call "Romneycare" (this chart is featured in another Washington Post article, but due to copyright reasons I can't reproduce it here, sorry).

See that gigantic spike? The number of people signing up was fairly consistent right up until the mandate kicked in, and then it almost tripled for that month. This is the problem the Obamacare website is about to face, except on a much larger scale. It will be the difference between a leisurely walk around a shopping mall the day before Thanksgiving and fighting the consumer hordes the day after Thanksgiving when the "Christmas shopping season" starts. That is the magnitude of the traffic problem waiting in the wings for the Obamacare website.

When the Obamacare website launched, millions of people went to browse it and sign up for insurance. But it soon became apparent that the site wasn't working all that great, and we've had a steady drumbeat in the media since then about how broken the site still is. This has, without doubt, meant that millions of people have put off using the website. Why bother, if the dang thing's broken, right? These people are patiently waiting for an announcement that the site is now functioning, after which they will return to the website to try again. But that's only one group of people. There's another -- far larger -- group that has not checked out the website at all, and is waiting until the last minute. Procrastination is a downright American sport, when you think about it.

Both these groups are going to swamp the website, beginning very soon. My best guess would be for an enormous traffic spike to begin the weekend after Thanksgiving, when many are off work and have spare time, and are thinking about family and the upcoming deadline of December 15. If you don't sign up for insurance before this date, then you will not have insurance on the first of next year, so millions will be attempting to purchase insurance from the day after Thanksgiving right up to the deadline. There's a bigger deadline at the end of next March, but the December spike is the one staring us in the face right now.

Figuring the specification for how many people should be able to simultaneously use a website is guesswork, to a large degree. But if 20,000 to 30,000 simultaneous users are only half of the specification in the first place, then what is going to happen when the spike hits? If the system had worked from the beginning, then maybe the specification of 50,000 or 60,000 simultaneous users might have been adequate. But since the system hasn't been working for two months before the spike, there will be a pent-up demand of people who are waiting for the green light from the White House in addition to all the "wait until the last minute" folks. What happens if this triples the traffic, as happened in the Massachusetts example? The system might need to continue functioning with as high as 150,000 to 200,000 users at the same time -- which is far beyond the original specification, and even farther beyond the 20,000 to 30,000 overloading the system as it stands.

Most who don't really understand technology (sadly, this includes most of the mainstream media) have been speaking of the Obamacare website as if it only had two possible states: "broken" and "working." The truth is a little subtler than that. If the functional bugs are fixed, then the site is technically working correctly, but if the traffic overloads continue to be a big problem then users are still not going to be able to effectively use it. Right when that huge wave of traffic will be about to crest.

This could be a political disaster in the making -- a separate disaster than the initial rollout. Because the Obama White House is going to attempt to tell the public "it's working pretty well for most people" (in some form or another) at the end of November. They pretty much have to, at this point. But when they do -- when they flash that green light to the public -- there is going to be an absolute stampede to log on to the website as a direct result. If this spike freezes the system for the first two weeks of December, then people are going to become not just frustrated but enraged. It will no longer be a matter of: "Well, I can sign up now or I can sign up in a few months," it will instead be: "My family will not be medically insured come January, because I cannot access the site."

The Obamacare website launch will go down in history as one of the worst technological rollouts ever. It will be studied in textbooks by computer science majors for years, one assumes, as a prime example of what not to do. The Obama White House has promised that the site will be fixed and working by the end of November. They may technically achieve this by fixing all the major functional bugs so the software at least performs as designed. But if what follows is such a spike in traffic that it (once again) brings the website to its knees, then all the spin of how many bugs were fixed isn't going to matter at all -- because the storyline is still going to be: "Obamacare website still hopelessly broken."

I would hope that someone at the White House has at least looked at that chart from Massachusetts, and is aware of the inevitable upcoming spike in traffic. I would hope that someone has brought up the issue that perhaps the specification for simultaneous users is going to be woefully inadequate when the stress test of that spike hits. But, at this point, I wouldn't bet money on it.

-- Chris Weigant

 

Cross-posted at The Huffington Post

Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant

 

16 Comments on “Obamacare Website's Upcoming Spike”

  1. [1] 
    Paula wrote:

    Hi Chris:

    I read this last night and found it persuasive and informative: http://www.dailykos.com/story/2013/11/12/1254621/-Meet-the-DeBuggers-An-attitude-adjustment-regarding-the-Fix-at-Healthcare-gov

    I build websites for a living and can relate to everything discussed. "Civilians" have no idea how these systems work, or what's easy and what's hard to deal with. To your point re: the potential surge, I expect folks on the team are anticipating a traffic spike and that is probably one of the more straightforward problems that can be addressed.

    I've read a number of accounts of people signing up for policies around the country and one of the sub-themes that comes up fairly often is the inherent complexity of comparing the details buried in these policies. People have to wade through a lot of variations about what's covered to what extent. Insurance companies have been opaque and deliberately confusing for a long time and I expect there will be some shakeouts over time as people stumble across unexpected contingencies over the next year or two.

    If the repubs were willing to be constructive in all this we could be focusing on improving things rather than having to devote energy and effort to simply giving the program a fighting chance.

    I am looking forward to getting insured for the first time in years and can tell you that the repubs trying to sabotage the ACA are beneath contempt.

    The fact that the White House or Sebelius and/or other key figures underestimated the difficulties is 100% par for the course. Non-techies do that all the time. It's annoying as hell but utterly predictable. Fixing the website isn't the problem -- it will get done. Keeping Dems strong and defanging repub vampires is the problem.

  2. [2] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Paula -

    Thanks, that was an interesting read over on Kos. The author seems technically competent, but just a wee bit optimistic, I think.

    I used to be a "bug hunter," in an earlier lifetime in Silicon Valley. This rarely helps me out nowadays as I pontificate on politics, but in this case I know exactly what I'm talking about because I have been there too.

    -CW

  3. [3] 
    Michale wrote:

    This is EXACTLY why I like it here, CW.. You usually have no problem laying out the reality of the situation..

    And, in this case, the reality is that the first week or two of December for obamacare is likely going to make the initial rollout seem downright problem free by comparison..

    It is my fervent hope that all Weigantians will accept the reality at that time and have the courtesy to admit, "Well, there is no use in denying it any longer. Michale is right. obamacare IS CrapCare"..

    Yea... And monkees will fly outta my butt as well.. :D

    Michale

  4. [4] 
    Michale wrote:

    It is my fervent hope that all Weigantians will accept the reality at that time and have the courtesy to admit, "Well, there is no use in denying it any longer. Michale is right. obamacare IS CrapCare"..

    It would also be nice if the Weigantian masses could also admit that Obama blatantly and unequivocally lied to the American people.

    But that ALSO might just be a bridge too far...

    Michale

  5. [5] 
    Michale wrote:

    I am looking forward to getting insured for the first time in years and can tell you that the repubs trying to sabotage the ACA are beneath contempt.

    You mean, like when the Democrats tried to sabotage Bush's CT program where the safety and security of this ENTIRE COUNTRY was at stake??

    Is that not also "beneath contempt"??

    It works both ways...

    It's actually even MORE contemptible because Democrats EMBRACED and *EXPANDED* those same policies when it was THEIR guy calling the shots..

    Hell, Nancy Pelosi is the *SAVIOR* of the NSA!!!!

    You wanna talk about contemptible!?? :D

    Michale

  6. [6] 
    Michale wrote:

    Hell, Nancy Pelosi is the *SAVIOR* of the NSA!!!!

    You wanna talk about contemptible!?? :D

    Contemptible, by ya'alls standards, I mean...

    Me?? I LOVED it!! Because we NEED the NSA out there and because it exposed policy for the blantly obvious political animal/hypocrite that she is.. :D

    Michale

  7. [7] 
    Michale wrote:

    Me?? I LOVED it!! Because we NEED the NSA out there and because it exposed policy for the blantly obvious political animal/hypocrite that she is.. :D

    Er... That SHOULD read:

    Me?? I LOVED it!! Because we NEED the NSA out there and because it exposed PELOSI for the blantly obvious political animal/hypocrite that she is.. :D

    Pelosi = policy???

    brrrrrrr... scary.....

    Michale

  8. [8] 
    Michale wrote:

    While we're waiting for the guillotine to come crashing down on obamacare, let's take a gander at the OTHER problem with obamacare, besides the crappy train wreck of a website..

    “If you like the insurance that you have, you'll be able to keep it.”
    -SEN. MARY LANDRIEU (D-LA)

    “We need to support the private insurance industry so that people who have insurance they're happy with can keep it while also providing a backstop option for people without access to affordable coverage.”
    -SEN. KAY HAGAN (D-NC)

    “If you got a doctor now, you got a medical professional you want, you get to keep that. If you have an insurance program or a health care policy you want of ideas, make sure you keep it. That you can keep who you want.”
    -SEN. MARK BEGICH (D-AK)

    “We should begin with a basic principle: if you have coverage and you like it, you can keep it. If you have your doctor, and you like him or her, you should be able to keep them as well. We will not take that choice away from you.”
    -SEN. MICHAEL BENNET (D-CO)

    “Again, if you like what you have, you will be able to keep it. Let me say this again: If you like what you have, when our legislation is passed and signed by the President, you will be able to keep it.”
    -SEN. PATTY MURRAY (D-WA)

    “One of the things we put in the health care bill when we designed it was the protection for consumers to keep the plan they have if they like it; thus, the term ‘grandfathered plans.’ If you have a plan you like --existing policies--you can keep them. …we said, if you like a plan, you get to keep it, and you can grandfather it in.”
    -SEN. TOM HARKIN (D-IA)

    “If you like your insurance, you keep it.”
    -SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D-NY)

    “This bill before us on the Senate floor makes it clear that if you have an insurance policy that you like, you can keep it. If you like the doctor that you're currently doing business with, you can continue to use that doctor.”
    -SEN. DICK DURBIN (D-IL)

    “In fact, one of our core principles is that if you like the health care you have, you can keep it.”
    -SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV)

    “That is why one of the central promises of health care reform has been and is: If you like what you have, you can keep it. That is critically important. If a person has a plan, and he or she likes it, he or she can keep it.”
    -SEN. MAX BAUCUS (D-MT)

    Common theme..

    All Democrats..

    All lying thru their teeth...

    Or all grossly incompetent...

    Michale

  9. [9] 
    Paula wrote:

    Michale: Nope. Repubs are still beneath contempt and no amount of huffing, puffing, obfuscation, deliberate or foolish conflations and misunderstandings change that.

    You wanna blame Dems for something legitimate, blame them for keeping this stupid system in the first place wherein we provide corporate welfare to medical insurance companies that do nothing but extract money while providing no necessary medical service. Someday I fervently hope, they will all be put out of business. But all the rest of your noise is just bull and nonsense in which you use up a lot of pixels to make very clear that you don't actually understand what's happening with the law or why. And no amount of cutting and pasting will change that.

    You might try actually acknowledging the systemic problems that have lead us to this place, and then try researching what the ACA is structured to do to solve or mitigate those problems.

  10. [10] 
    michty6 wrote:

    Firstly - obviously a huge congratulations to the 106,000+ people who can now go see a Doctor. Welcome to the 21st Century :)

    Secondly, you're absolutely spot on CW. This is a pretty good graph showing what's to come for the website: http://www.keystonepolitics.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/RomneyCare-Enrollment.png

  11. [11] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Michale [3] -

    Somehow I just knew you'd like this article. But you've got to admit, even when criticizing Dems, I like to think I bring a new perspective.

    This spike problem is staring everyone in the face, but I haven't heard a peep about it anywhere else. Oh, sure, it'll be big news (if it's a disaster) when it happens, but it always amazes me that people can't seem to see such obvious stuff happening.

    Well, I suppose I'm comforted by being able to say "you read it here first!"

    Sigh.

    And -- aha! I've remembered -- wasn't your term "DunselCare" before? Rather admired the esoteric, Star Trek-based nature of that one.

    Heh.

    As for Pelosi=policy, um, your Freudian slip is showing, there...

    Heh heh.

    michty6 -

    Yeah, I saw that chart all over the place when searching for the link in the article. But I don't like it as much because I really don't think it has enough data (too constricted an X-axis). The chart I linked to shows the spike much better in relation to the surrounding months.

    -CW

  12. [12] 
    Michale wrote:

    Paula,

    Michale: Nope. Repubs are still beneath contempt and no amount of huffing, puffing, obfuscation, deliberate or foolish conflations and misunderstandings change that.

    I am not trying to change that. Because it's true.. Perhaps not for this particular action, as they are simply obeying the will of the majority of Americans who don't like obamacare..

    But they are politicians. As such, BY DEFINITION, they are "beneath contempt"..

    My only point is that Democrats are equally beneath contempt. The Bush CT Policies issue is a prime example of that..

    That's the point you always miss.

    Democrats and Republicans are simply two sides to the same twisted and corrupt coin..

    You might try actually acknowledging the systemic problems that have lead us to this place, and then try researching what the ACA is structured to do to solve or mitigate those problems.

    And it's doing a bang-up job so far, ain't it..

    Kinda like breaking your arm to "cure" your headache...

    Michty,

    Firstly - obviously a huge congratulations to the 106,000+ people who can now go see a Doctor. Welcome to the 21st Century :)

    Interesting (and typical) how you ignore the 5+ MILLIONS of Americans who WON'T be able to see a Doctor now..

    Apparently, you are a "the needs of the few outweigh the needs of the many" kinda guy...

    CW,

    And -- aha! I've remembered -- wasn't your term "DunselCare" before? Rather admired the esoteric, Star Trek-based nature of that one.

    The problem with DunselCare is that Dunsel is defined as a piece or part which serves no useful purpose..

    By extension, I would assume that it ALSO means a part or device that does no harm..

    Therefore Dunsel Care no longer applies as it is obvious to even the most rabid ideological partisan that obamacare is causing great harm...

    As I said, the problem with obamacare is that it completely ignores the VERY first precept of the Hippocratic Oath.

    First, do no harm...

    Michale

  13. [13] 
    TheStig wrote:

    "I've read a number of accounts of people signing up for policies around the country and one of the sub-themes that comes up fairly often is the inherent complexity of comparing the details buried in these policies."

    Spot on Paula! As one of the "chosen" 37,00 who somehow got signed up through the Federal web site, I can tell you that logging on and using the clumsy browser is the EZ part.

    Comparing the competing plans is where I started to pull my hair out. Even when you sort out the obviously unsuitable (too pricey, personal physician out of network), estimating the utility of the existing plans involves a lot guesswork.

    The basic problems are:

    What is the probability of me (enter age, sex, heredity, life style, locality etc) getting illness X in the next year?

    What is the cost of me dealing with with illness X in my area? Keep in mind this varies tremendously (for no apparent reason) from hospital to hospital, and there is no one answer, it depends on how well I respond to various treatment options, if the problem is basically acute, or has chronic (and expensive) fall outs. Are my local hospitals good enough, or am I going to need to travel to get adequate expertise and equipment.

    Repeat for illness, Y, Z .....

    When free market types talk about the average citizen being able to make an well informed choice in the medical marketplace, I just have to sigh.

    I've encountered the same sorts of problems getting the best medicare plans for my parents. Hint: the devil is often in the medications.

    Now, the plan I chose is better than the plan I have now (none). I have no insurance now because the plans I could afford were basically expensive liar plans that were pricey and didn't protect me from "catastrophic" illness or accident. That's the game people like me play. Healthy enough, or bankruptcy. (Shout out to my grandma for loaning me some really good genes).

    So, assuming the coverage I got isn't a fraud, or that the whole system doesn't collapse, I'm much better off than I was before. But did I get the best value? Likely not.

    It's not like you can test drive your plan, like a car...and I've bought a few cars I've grown to dislike post test.

    Roll them bones.

  14. [14] 
    Michale wrote:

    TS,

    Sounds like you made out OK..

    But what of the millions of Americans who won't??

    Reminds me of a little viginette from The Outer Limits remake a few years back.. OK, probably more than a few years..

    Seems a strange old man knocked on this lady's door and handed her a box with a button. He told the lady that, if she pushed the button she would get $100,000. But that someone she didn't know would die.. He said he would be back in the morning to pick up the box...

    The lady agonized over it all night and, when morning came, she pushed the button..

    The man showed up promptly and handed her a case with $100,000 in it.

    The lady asked, "What happens to the box?"..

    The man replied, "It will go to someone different. Someone you don't know."

    Pretty interesting episode...

    Kinda illustrates nicely what we find ourselves in with obamacare..

    Yea, there might be a few people that make out.. A few people that are better off..

    But what about the millions upon millions who are losing their plans, who are being forced to pay more for coverage they don't need, don't want and can't use??

    What about those people??

    I am sure you realize that SOME of those people did vote for Obama and Democrats...

    Michale

  15. [15] 
    TheStig wrote:

    Re 14

    It remains to be seen just how well I've done.

    Back in the day when my employer subsidized my health care and provided a pretty comprehensive plan, I was still giving it 1.5 cheers. Not a lot of choices offered. It was a big monthly expense, and there was an ungodly amount of paper work from my insurance middleman. Oh, and a lifetime cap that was way too low.

    So, if all works out well, I'll just have a marginally better version of what I had a decade ago, when the economy was better, and I was a decade younger. With a hefty subsidy from the government rather than my employer.

    Obama Care was never intended to be universal health coverage. More people covered, lower cost pressures, fewer insurance rip offs. Pretty modest ambitions.

    I would much rather have seen an expansion of Medicare to all age brackets. Medicare is administratively cost efficient and holds some big trumps for holding medical costs down. The private medicine model delivers excellent health care to those who can get it, but based on other First World Nations, it is two or three times more pricey than it ought to be. Think of it as a medical Starbucks. (Now I'm in real trouble).

    I look at Obama Care as the Nose of the Camel Under the Tent. Mediocre start, good potential for improvement in the out years. Just like Medicare was. Which is of course the biggest fear of Republicans and the health care industry. God help 'em if Affordable Health Care actually works.

  16. [16] 
    Michale wrote:

    Which is of course the biggest fear of Republicans and the health care industry. God help 'em if Affordable Health Care actually works.

    The converse of that is ALSO true..

    God help the Democrats if obamacare goes down in flames..

    Of the two scenarios, however, it's more likely that the latter will be the reality rather than the former..

    Michale

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