Slow Obamacare registration: denial of service attack, or self-inflicted injury?

The new healthcare marketplace for the Affordable Care Act, Healthcare.GOV, has been operating slowly under the weight of open enrollment for “Obamacare” plans. The question then comes up: is this some kind of coordinated denial of service attack on the system, or is the system architecture simply slow under heavy load?

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Reuters took a look at the issue, and found some problems with the healthcare marketplace’s systems design.

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, 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.

The New York Times reported on the site’s debut

While the site took three years to build, it took only a few minutes for it to break down when it went live at 8 a.m. E.D.T. Some consumers said they were met with an error message in the early morning when trying to visit the Web site, which seemed to be overwhelmed with traffic and limited by apparent programming issues. Many people took to Twitter and Facebook to note that the site was down.

And MSNBC asks – disaster or routine maintenance?

HHS officials said that they will be taking down the “application part of the website” for scheduled maintenance this weekend, according to NBC News’ Kristin Welker. The announcement was red meat for critics of Obamacare, who have been largely silent since the health care law rolled out earlier this week. Speaker John Boehner said the administration’s announcement was proof that “the president’s health care law has been an unmitigated disaster.”

So far, no reliable reports that I’ve been able to find blame the problem on a specific denial of service attack; rather, it appears to be a combination of sudden demand for the service, teething pains for a new site, and system complexity. I did not note any commentary from the Arbor Networks ASERT weblog, which writes about DDOS attacks. Renesys, usually a useful view on problems, is reporting on Internet downtime in Sudan and Syria. My heads-up site for Internet-wide problems, the outages mailing list, is silent. Strangely, the place I’d expect to have seen this show up – the automated news aggregator Techmeme – is also quiet (Update: see below for Techmeme coverage). The Obamacare Reddit subboard has some reports from people who made it through the system, and others who are having problems.

More insights:

  • Washington Post interview with Jyoti Bansal, the founder of AppDynamics, an application management company that, among other things “makes sure essential software applications of customers such as Netflix stay up and running.”

Most of the problems like these are in the software. Hardware is the easy part. You can add more hardware and do it easily. Software takes more time. In the rush of getting this out, it seems like testing wasn’t done completely. My expectations from this is that these problems should go away in the next few weeks. The site still won’t be as fast as something like Netflix, but it should work.

I find it so telling of Americans if you can’t get it within 4 days when you have 6 months to sign up we throw up our hands, have a temper tantrum and take our toys and go home. How about waiting a couple weeks and try again.

  • Techmeme weighs in leading with a Wall Street Journal story –

Six days into the launch of insurance marketplaces created by the new health-care law, the federal government acknowledged for the first time Sunday it needed to fix design and software problems that have kept customers from applying online for coverage.

2 thoughts on “Slow Obamacare registration: denial of service attack, or self-inflicted injury?

  1. Kathy Brade

    Correction for the Facebook commenter: I don’t have 6 months, I have until Dec. 15. My current coverage has been discontinued as of the end of this year. I would guess that is true for many others too. Of course there is still two months to figure it out. I am glad there are many choices but wow! It is expensive. More than double of what I am currently paying. (Not that I can make a comparison though since I have only seen prices not features)


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