WASHINGTON - Officials running the federal health insurance website could ease some of the problems created by the high volume of visitors by contracting out computing help to the "cloud," a tech company leader said Friday.
Amazon, eBay and other online retailers handle Christmas-period surges in traffic by offloading critical aspects of their sites, such as photos, graphics and other images, to a group of hundreds or even thousands of computers that take some of the burden off of their own servers, said Jeff Kim, president of CDNetworks, a content delivery network.
"Their computers are having to do a lot of different things," Kim said. "But if you offload to the cloud, then you just need to worry about the database."
Issues with the new system led Kim to believe HHS was not using a cloud, which is often used by other government systems. For example, at tax time, the IRS offloads much of its information to a cloud so its computers can focus on the internal database, he said.
"You can use the cloud just for the peak times," he said. "It appears their system has not been optimized."
But John Engates, chief technology officer at Rackspace, a cloud computer service provider, said it looks like HHS is using cloud technology - at least on the front end. But when the system begins connecting with other systems, such as the IRS, it gets bogged down.
"You could have legacy systems not meant for the load they have now and simply can't keep up," he said. "Facebook controls the whole system - HHS does not," he added, explaining that the websites famous for their ability to meet demand quickly can upgrade and test each part of the system.
"It could be a really good system," he said. "But one weak link could bring you down."
By next week, the high volume of visitors to the new federal health exchange will slow down, making it easier for consumers to shop for and buy insurance and reducing the need for the government to spend millions to improve it, said Matthew Prince, CEO of CloudFare, another content delivery network.
"Almost certainly you could solve this problem by throwing a whole lot of money at it," Prince said. "But is that a good use of resources? A week from now, there is not going to be that much traffic."
But the high traffic on the site - HealthCare.gov - remained Friday, as did the delays and crashes that marked the first week of operation.
By Friday, more than 8.6 million individual visitors had come to the page, according to Department of Health and Human Services statistics.
Officials also listed steps taken to improve the system, including "extra space" for more users to get into the system, more technicians, more representatives at the call center, and new "pathways to get you to the application faster."
HHS officials have trumpeted the high volume as a sign of increased interest in the Affordable Care Act. But House Republicans who have led the fight to strip funding from the law said Friday they don't believe the interest is that great and called for an investigation.
"I think if you subtract out members of Congress and their staff and reporters who called in those first 48 hours the numbers will be considerably lower," Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Texas, told CNN Friday. "We will have an opportunity to dissect these numbers in our subcommittee of oversight investigations later this month or next month."
Under the law, people without health insurance provided by their employers, the government or their parents will have to buy insurance on the exchanges, which are websites where they can compare prices and choose policies. They will pay a fine if they decline to buy the insurance. If they make less than 400% of the federal poverty level, or $94,200 for a family of four, they may be eligible for a subsidy that will be applied directly to their premiums.
DEC. 15 DEADLINE FOR 2014 COVERAGE
The early delays will not matter so much, federal officials have said, because Americans have until Dec. 15 to buy insurance for coverage starting Jan. 1.
Now, however, the volume is causing problems and creating negative publicity.
That should be manageable, Prince said, once the volume tapers off.
The problem, Prince said, is that the government lacks the computing power to process the "back end" of the website action, where visitors access data.
"If you send too much data, the system can get overwhelmed at the back end," Prince said. "It appears the front end is holding up just fine. But after you enter information, that's when the problems have been emerging."
HHS' database, Prince said, was created by computer services giant Oracle, which is "probably the largest in the world. They know how to make a great database." Oracle was not a contractor for this specific project.
An Oracle database, he said, can handle 7 million visits. A site such as Google can receive that many hits in a few minutes. But Google's results don't have to be consistent, Prince said. A person in San Francisco can search for "ice cream" and get slightly different results than a person in Washington doing the same search. The different search results wouldn't matter, he said.
HHS does not have that option: The results must be exact.
"That's difficult to do without giving up some availability," Prince said.
But HHS also probably built the site for a "normal" day, he said.
"It's not clear that it's best to build for a few days of high traffic," he said. "It's embarrassing now, but in a week, it's no big deal."
HHS expects to see volume peak again Dec. 15 as people try to meet the deadline for Jan. 1 coverage.
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