A new type of traffic jam -- online

As April 15 approaches, the IRS is the latest agency facing online overloads.

Michael Wright

There's a deadline approaching and many Americans are scrambling. On April 15, taxes are due. If you've ever found yourself outside of a U.S. Post Office building on that night, you'll know how procrastination can conspire to jam up traffic for blocks. For decades, the annual ritual was all about getting your papers postmarked before the stroke of midnight. But over the last few years, as online filing has replaced the trusty stamp and envelope, the lines outside Post Offices have slowly subsided. The traffic jam, however, is still just as real -- it just has moved into cyberspace. The closer we get to April 15th, the greater the stress that's placed on the IRS and its filing systems.

This is not a trivial matter. Web traffic spikes can knock down mission-critical systems. In 2007, the online tax preparation service, TurboTax, experienced a spike when tax filers flooded their network, shutting the system down on the most critical tax day of the year. The result: TurboTax lost significant cachet with customers and the future of its service was called into question. More recently, on February 14, 2013, the IRS asked e-file users to check for refunds only once per day as they were slowing down web traffic.

For the federal government, the stakes are just as high. If citizens cannot file on time, they will face real financial penalties. Moreover, a disruption of service can change citizen behavior. When the website slowed down in February, the IRS saw a significant spike in telephone requests, resulting in wait time for those customers as well.

The web has been around for a long time, you might say, so why is this suddenly such a big issue? Shouldn't federal agencies already know how to deal with this?

No. While the web is now nearly two decades old, with each passing year, the volume of data and complexity of software running on the web increases. So do the devices we use to access it. Smartphones and tablets are expected to increase web traffic by more than 26 times in the next three years. For federal agencies, this influx of traffic will provide new opportunities to interact and deliver excellent services to the citizen--but it will also present serious challenges to reliability.

Mobile browsers use the same web infrastructure, but require three to four times more processing power from agency servers. That means that each time a user visits a website from a smartphone, the agency network experiences the same load as three or four users accessing the same page from their desktop computer. The stress is even greater when it comes to mobile apps. The Obama Administration's Digital Government Strategy mandates that all federal agencies develop at least two services for mobile use, and there are already more than 270 federal mobile apps available. With more mobile phones in the world than computers, the challenge is clear: how do agencies meet citizen demands?

New issues require new thinking. Federal agencies can no longer expect that purchasing more bandwidth or more servers will solve the problem. Instead, agencies need to attack the problem at the core through better application testing. Just as cloud computing is reshaping federal IT, it can also reshape the performance-testing environment. Cloud-based performance testing provides the ability to quickly scale to test the largest peak loads on a multitude of platforms. In this way, agencies can see how their systems would react to 50,000, 100,000 or 200,000 virtual users. Knowing this, they can then go back and make necessary changes to prepare for days like April 15th.

Absent better testing, agencies live in a "let's see what happens" world. Will the system jam up? Will citizen data be lost in the process? What will we do to recover? "Let's see what happens" is not acceptable in an increasingly complex world. Federal websites are no longer just about frequently asked questions and slideshows; they are the gateway to provide critical government services. To ensure that these new systems remain accessible and available, agencies need to take a new approach to performance testing.

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