Feds' savings site a big hit and miss

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Blowing off steam

After a troublesome start early last week, the federal Thrift Savings Plan's online system seemed back on track by week's end.

The TSP, the nation's largest retirement plan of its kind, launched the system midday last Monday, but it stumbled almost immediately when bugs surfaced in the Web interface and when eager users overwhelmed the new features at www.tsp.gov.

An e-mail account created by Federal Computer Week to get feedback on the new features received more than 100 complaints from federal employees and retirees who said they could not get onto the Web site to access their accounts, not even at night when site traffic should have been lighter.

On Wednesday night, the system processed $29.4 million in interfund transfers, paid-out loans and withdrawals, TSP officials said. Designed to simultaneously handle 53,000 transactions, the system was near its optimal performance by Thursday.

As the week went on, complaints tapered off and some readers reported they had accessed their online accounts. Officials at the Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board, which administers the plan, said the underlying system was working well, and they fixed the bugs in the Web interface.

The culmination of a modernization effort that has been ongoing since 1997, the new system will eliminate much of the TSP's paperwork. It assesses each account daily and allows its 3.1 million participants to change the allocation of their contributions. Participants can file loan applications and obtain funds in a few days; previously, it would take nearly six weeks.

Lawrence Stiffler, the board's director of automated systems, said that when the system went live June 16, some bugs emerged in the Web interface. He said the system had been stress-tested, but the bugs did not show up until later.

The bugs trapped users in the system and tied it up so that others could not access it. His staff and the system development contractor, Materials, Communications and Computers Inc. (MatCom) of Alexandria, Va., applied Band-Aids to the bugs, Stiffler said. They also added a feature: a button just for checking account balances, enabling more users to get on and off the system quickly.

At a board meeting June 16, chairman Andrew Saul and others had warned that bugs were to be expected. "With a new system, there are going to be hiccups, there are going to be problems," Saul said.

At midweek, Stiffler said, a large number of visitors had swamped the site. "It seems like everybody in the government is getting on" the Web site, he said. "We're getting an inordinate amount of people checking on loans." He could not explain why that was happening.

About 5,000 to 10,000 visitors per hour accessed the Web site Wednesday, Stiffler said. By Thursday, that number had increased fivefold. The 53,000 visitors-an-hour capacity is 20 percent greater than the TSP's highest volume before the new system went live. "The ThriftLine calls are way up," too, he added.

The new system replaces a 20-year-old one on which participants processed transactions monthly instead of daily. Both are mainframe-based, but the new mainframe, an IBM Corp. OS/390, works more like a big server. It hosts the new database and communicates with servers from Hewlett-Packard Co., Dell Computer Corp. and Sun Microsystems Inc. Sun servers host the Web site.

At the heart of the system is OmniPlus, an employee benefits system from SunGard of Wayne, Pa. In keeping with the philosophy of using commercial software, the board made few changes to the product. Stiffler said the MatCom staff and its subcontractors used SunGard's OmniScript to build query tables and other modules for inputting and accessing data. "The data conversion was a substantial portion of the effort," he added.

In addition to the benefits software, the system employs a commercial accounting package from Savantage Financial Services Inc., Stiffler said.

System development began in 1997 when the board awarded a contract to American Management Systems Inc. of Fairfax, Va. The board terminated that contract in 2001 after it determined that AMS' progress was insufficient.

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