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A startup could've made a better Obamacare site, says CloudFlare boss

Medical plan portal manages to enroll 100k citizens in a month

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The White House claims its sickly medical insurance portal healthcare.gov is finally finding its feet – but after weeks of stability problems, one web specialist has told The Reg: a startup would have done better.

The site is under fire after struggling to stay running as hundreds of thousands of Americans piled in to check out the new system, launched October 1. Six people managed to register on the first day.

The Obama administration yesterday said 26,794 citizens enrolled in the online marketplace in October, falling short of its target of 500,000 for the month. If you include the 14 state-level sites, the total enrolled rises to 106,185. Nearly 976,000 people have completed the registration process, but it's clear nearly all of them have not yet chosen a medical coverage plan.

"There is no doubt the level of interest is strong. We expect enrollment will grow substantially throughout the next five months," said US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) secretary Kathleen Sebelius on Wednesday.

"We also expect that the numbers will grow as the website, HealthCare.gov, continues to make steady improvements."

The HHS announcement comes in the wake of a far less optimistic report from The Washington Post. The newspaper cited sources within the government in reporting that the service will not meet a November 30 goal to reach full productivity.

In fact, the Post report suggests that the healthcare.gov site is still struggling so badly that it is unable to perform properly when traffic to the service surpasses levels of 20,000 to 30,000 users simultaneously.

While officials have since moved to improve the site, parachuted in experts from Silicon Valley, and beefed up staffing, outside observers remain puzzled as to exactly why the site continues to battle with its weight of user demand.

Matthew Prince, CEO of web-load juggling specialist CloudFlare, told The Reg that from a front-end perspective there is no reason as to why the service should buckle under such a relatively modest traffic load.

"These feel like systems that should be able to respond to that level of use and availability demand," he remarked.

"These are things that startup companies build for higher volume and higher scale on a much smaller budget."

Rather, Prince believes that in many ways the Healthcare.gov site has been hampered by the unique demands a government IT project places on a portal that commercial projects rarely face, such as legislative oversight and a launch deadline determined by political and democratic process rather than by a project manager's estimate.

Additionally, Prince noted that the complex structure of the project was further complicated by the procurement process which brings multiple agencies and contractors into the fold and greatly complicates development.

"If we go to build something, the people that are going build, test and launch are all sitting in the same room," he said.

"At some level, the provisioning process, while it has many good intentions, can make building a complex system like software a lot harder than it would be if you had a smaller team." ®

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