Why did the Obamacare Website Fail?

by HSG on Mar 20, 2014 in Articles from Software Fans

Millions of people experienced the frustration and failures of the Obamacare website when it first launched. Because the code for the back end is not open source, the exact technicalities of the initial failings are tricky to determine. Many curious programmers and web designers have had time to examine the open source coding on the front end, however, leading to reasonable conclusions about the nature of the overall difficulties.

Lack of End to End Collaboration
The website was developed with multiple contractors for the front-end and back-end functions. The site also needed to be integrated with insurance companies, IRS servers, Homeland Security servers, and the Department of Veterans Affairs, all of whom had their own legacy systems. The large number of parties involved and the complex nature of the various components naturally complicated the testing and integration of each portion of the project.

The errors displayed, and occasionally the lack thereof, indicated an absence of coordination between the parties developing the separate components. A failed sign up attempt, for instance, often resulted in a page that displayed the header but had no content or failure message. A look at end user requests revealed that the database was unavailable. Clearly, the coding for the front end did not include errors for failures on the back end.

Bloat and the Abundance of Minor Issues
Obviously, numerous bugs were also an issue. The system required users to create passwords that included numbers, for example, but failed to disclose that on the form and in subsequent failure messages, leaving users baffled. In another issue, one of the pages intended to ask users to please wait or call instead, but the message and the phone information were accidentally commented out in the code.

While the front-end design has been cleared of blame for the most serious failures, bloat in the code did contribute to the early difficulties users experienced. The site design was heavy with Javascript and CSS files, and it was peppered with small coding errors that became particularly troublesome when users faced bottlenecks in traffic. Frequent typos throughout the code proved to be an additional embarrassment and were another indication of a troubled development process.

NoSQL Database
The NoSQL database is intended to allow for scalability and flexibility in the architecture of projects that will use it. This made NoSQL a logical choice for the health insurance exchange website. The newness of the technology, however, means personnel with expertise can be elusive. Database-related missteps were more likely the result of a lack of experienced administrators than with the technology itself. The choice of the NoSQL database was thus another complication in the development, but did not itself cause the failures.

Another factor of consequence is that the website was built with both agile and waterfall methodology elements. With agile methods for the front end and the waterfall methodology for the back end, streamlining was naturally going to suffer further difficulties. The disparate contractors, varied methods of software development, and an unrealistically short project time line all contributed to the coding failures of the website.

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