What Healthcare.gov and GTA Online Have in Common

It takes a lot of infrastructure (and guts) to launch a big cloud-based service.

The federal government shut down at midnight, after Democratic and Republican legislators failed to reach a deal over the budget. It’s the first time the federal government’s been closed for business in 17 years, even if “essential” employees are still required to report to work.

At roughly the same moment, the federal government launched healthcare.gov, the Website backing the healthcare exchanges that form the backbone of the controversial Affordable Care Act (ACA). While the ACA is funded via mandatory channels that make it immune to the federal shutdown, the Website experienced difficulties throughout Oct. 1 as large numbers of people attempted to use its features. Websites for individual states’ healthcare exchanges, including those for Maryland and Colorado, experienced a variety of early glitches and delays.

President Obama, always up for sprinkling a couple of cultural references in his speeches—the better to appeal to younger voters, possibly—compared the Websites’ first hours of operation to Apple rolling out iOS 7 a few weeks back.

“We’re going to be speeding things up in the next few hours to handle all of this demand that exceeds anything that we had expected,” Obama told the audience for a Rose Garden speech on Oct. 1, according to a transcript provided by The Washington Post. “Consider that just a couple of weeks ago, Apple rolled out a new mobile operating system, and within days, they found a glitch, so they fixed it.”

Obama continued: “I don’t remember anybody suggesting Apple should stop selling iPhones or iPads or threatening to shut down the company if they didn’t. That’s not how we do things in America. We don’t actively root for failure. We get to work, we make things happen, we make them better, we keep going.”

The federal government wasn’t the only entity experiencing online issues on Oct. 1: Rockstar Games launched “Grand Theft Auto Online,” a massively multiplayer version of their popular game series, and the resulting player demand put a serious hurt on their servers. In addition to receiving the occasional “servers unavailable” message, players desperate to get online and commit digital mass-murder ran into freezing screens, slow loading, failed logins, and timeout errors. Rockstar is scrambling to fix the issues.

Over the past several years, more and more public and private services have sprung up online. Often these services ramp up slowly, which gives their founders the chance to gradually build out the underlying infrastructure. Healthcare.gov and GTA Online didn’t have the benefit of time; it was expected from the very beginning that millions of people would clog their respective systems, and that some glitches would probably appear as a result. The question is whether those enormous services—and those of their ilk—can weed out the problems quickly enough to keep users satisfied in the following days and weeks.

 

Image: Healthcare.gov

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