News

IT experts question architecture of Obamacare website

IT experts question architecture of Obamacare website

WEB GLITCH: IT experts say the Obamacare website needs improvement. Photo: Reuters

By Sharon Begley

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Days after the launch of the federal government’s Obamacare website, millions of Americans looking for information on new health insurance plans were still locked out of the system even though its designers scrambled to add capacity.

Government officials blame the persistent glitches on an overwhelming crush of users – 8.6 million unique visitors by Friday – trying to visit the HealthCare.gov website this week.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which oversaw development of the site, declined to make any of its IT experts available for interviews. CGI Group Inc, the Canadian contractor that built HealthCare.gov, is “declining to comment at this time,” said spokeswoman Linda Odorisio.

Five outside technology experts interviewed by Reuters, however, say they believe flaws in system architecture, not traffic alone, contributed to the problems.

For instance, when a user tries to create an account on HealthCare.gov, which serves insurance exchanges in 36 states, it prompts the computer to load an unusually large amount of files and software, overwhelming the browser, experts said.

If they are right, then just bringing more servers online, as officials say they are doing, will not fix the site.

“Adding capacity sounds great until you realize that if you didn’t design it right that won’t help,” said Bill Curtis, chief scientist at CAST, a software quality analysis firm, and director of the Consortium for IT Software Quality. “The architecture of the software may limit how much you can add on to it. I suspect they’ll have to reconfigure a lot of it.”

The online exchanges were launched on October 1 under the 2010 Affordable Care Act, commonly called Obamacare, to offer healthcare insurance plans to millions of uninsured Americans.

OVERLOADED

One possible cause of the problems is that hitting “apply” on HealthCare.gov causes 92 separate files, plug-ins and other mammoth swarms of data to stream between the user’s computer and the servers powering the government website, said Matthew Hancock, an independent expert in website design. He was able to track the files being requested through a feature in the Firefox browser.

Of the 92 he found, 56 were JavaScript files, including plug-ins that make it easier for code to work on multiple browsers (such as Microsoft Corp’s Internet Explorer and Google Inc’s Chrome) and let users upload files to HealthCare.gov.

It is not clear why the upload function was included.

“They set up the website in such a way that too many requests to the server arrived at the same time,” Hancock said.

He said because so much traffic was going back and forth between the users’ computers and the server hosting the government website, it was as if the system was attacking itself.

Hancock described the situation as similar to what happens when hackers conduct a distributed denial of service, or DDOS, attack on a website: they get large numbers of computers to simultaneously request information from the server that runs a website, overwhelming it and causing it to crash or otherwise stumble. “The site basically DDOS’d itself,” he said.

In an indication that traffic alone may not be the only problem, a government official with knowledge of the matter said that technicians at HealthCare.gov had not only added more servers but had also “improved system configurations.” The official did not elaborate.

But HHS announced late Friday that it would take down part of HealthCare.gov for part of the weekend, another sign that extra servers alone would not fix the problems.

Many users experienced problems involving security questions they had to answer in order to create an account on HealthCare.gov. No questions appeared in the boxes, or an error message said they were using the same answers for different questions when they were not.

The government official blamed the glitch on massive traffic, but outside experts said it likely reflected programming choices as well.

“It’s a bug in the system, a coding problem,” said Jyoti Bansal, chief executive of AppDynamics, a San Francisco-based company that builds products that monitor websites and identify problems.

Hancock’s analysis suggested that the security questions were coming from a separate server and that better system architecture would have cached the questions on the main HealthCare.gov server.

“The more you have to ask another database for information, the more it can get overwhelmed,” said Jonathan Wu, a computer scientist and co-founder of ValuePenguin, a data and research website that offers spending-related tools for consumers.

Recent Headlines

in National

Amanda Knox murder conviction overturned

FILE - In this Jan. 31, 2014, file photo, Amanda Knox prepares to leave the set following a television interview in New York. Knox is engaged to Colin Sutherland, a musician who recently moved to Seattle from New York, a person close to the Knox family confirmed for The Associated Press. Knox’s murder conviction in the 2007 stabbing of her roommate has been reinstated by an Italian court, but the former college exchange student maintains her innocence and vows she won’t willingly go back to Italy. Both Knox and Sutherland are 27. No wedding date had been set.

Italy's highest court has overturned the murder conviction against Amanda Knox, bringing to a definitive end the high-profile case.

in Local

Mesko sentenced to state prison time

gavel_court

The former Cornell student allegedly entered a woman's bedroom and sexually assaulted her in March 2013.

in National

Time for Iran to make tough decisions in nuclear talks

In this March 26, 2015, photo, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, center, leaves a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and other U.S. officials at a hotel in Lausanne, Switzerland. U.S. and Iranian diplomats gather at a Baroque palace in Europe, a historic nuclear agreement within reach. Over Iraq’s deserts, their militaries fight a common foe. Leaders in Washington and Tehran, capitals once a million miles from each other in ideological terms, wrestle for the first time in decades with the notion of a rapprochement.

Six world powers and Iran move closer to a deal, but there are still major disagreements.

in Sports

This week’s top sports shots

AP564917773040_12

A look at some of the biggest plays and best photos in sports this week.

in Sports

This weekend’s sports schedule

playball

A look at some of this weekend's biggest sporting events.