FeaturesHeadlines: March 24th, 2011

Ian Arundell, public sector specialist at web traffic management company Zeus Technology, highlights the problems of providing a reliable service to users of public service websites. He also explains how the risk of a web crash can be limited.

The launch of the Home Office’s online crime mapping site caused mass frustration when it crashed shortly after being launched because of high demand. The high profile incident raises questions about some of the challenges facing Government in delivering highly accessible dynamic websites, as more services head online.

The launch of the new site (www.police.uk) is an important step for the Government as part of its ongoing commitment to transparency in crime, policing and justice in England and Wales. But within just hours of the site being launched, it had over 18 million hits causing the site to crash.

With budget cuts coming into affect and spending cuts rife, when systems like this are implemented, public sector organisations need to be confident that they are 100 per cent operable and are going to provide the designated service from the start. Online efficiencies remain as important as offline initiatives, if not more – mainly because if they fail to work, debate spreads quickly in the social media world questioning their value.

Why public sector organisations need to scale their web traffic?

Managing web traffic and preventing web performance issues is something that should not be ignored, especially for those sites that are naturally going to attract widespread attention. For public online services to be a success and be widely used, they require their users to trust that they are well run and available. The coalition’s plan to move more public services online is a great initiative, making access to services more readily available. However, this will undoubtedly cause increases in traffic and where there is no strategy in place to manage peaks in usage, web performance problems become inevitable.

Using software for better cost efficiencies

With the right web traffic management strategy in place, online public sector initiatives do not just benefit from reliability. With cost saving a key requisite for most, public sector organisations are keener than ever to show better accountability for their costs. For example, Cambridge University has worked with us to manage their traffic with a software based solution to access greater flexibility and save money when extra capacity is required. Using a software alternative, IT teams can use the solution to scale by simply adding licenses only when they are needed, opposed to buying new hardware each time more capacity is required. This goes as far as hourly provision of traffic management services, with quick provisioning and rapid scaling up and down.

Public trust in online services

Gaining public trust in web-based services is the product of a fast, well performing website. However, when an online service fails it can deprive people of vital public services, making them reluctant to use them again in future. In this respect, their trust in using new innovations is fragile and can easily be broken if web performance is poor. For example, the National Pandemic Flu Service website crashed on the day it was launched after the site recorded more than 9.3 million hits per hour. At this point, The Department of Health said demand was “unprecedented” with 2,600 hits a second. This calls for IT teams to understand when these peaks are likely to happen and be able to easily scale up computing power as and when required to.

Case Study – Zeus Streamlines Comms for Newport City Council

Newport City Council instigated a £1.6m ($2.9m) drive to comply with Welsh Assembly e-government initiatives. The requirement was to increase the availability and performance of its IT systems. Bearing this in mind, it was clear to the Council that their aging content servers would need to be replaced with a more resilient and higher-performance solution.

To allow the performance of both the public and Intranet services to be scaled in line with demand, Newport City Council chose to build a cluster of application, content management and database servers backed by a SAN storage solution. To provide the resilience they required, the cluster would be fronted by an application traffic manager or load balancer. To achieve this, Newport selected Zeus Traffic Manager – due in equal measure to the high degree of flexibility in the product and to the knowledge and understanding demonstrated by Zeus’ consultants when assessing their needs.

Zeus software intelligently manages traffic from external visitors to the website, routing requests to the appropriate server using sophisticated TrafficScript™ rules. By automatically re-routing requests to different servers, Zeus provides faster responses and ensures end users are never faced with unhelpful error messages. Zeus also manages the Council’s internal traffic to the Intranet. Adding value to the Stellent content management system, Zeus Traffic Manager provides a gateway for internal staff to access a wider range of documents than was previously possible. This allows contact centre staff to respond to residents’ queries.

Zeus continues to enable Newport City Council to provide users with transparent access to information from one efficient and swift website.

Maintaining web performance in the public sector

Where the right measures are in place to maintain web performance for UK citizens, wider adoption is more likely to follow. For example, HMRC revealed that 6,907,410 people used the online option to meet the January 2011 tax return deadline, accounting for 78 per cent of all returns. This was a 7 per cent increase on the 2010 total.

It makes sense that local and central government need to manage web performance in much the same way as private businesses do. Many publically funded online sites offer invaluable services to both the local and national online community, advising on key concern areas such as health, education and crime. The Home Office’s new crime-mapping website was designed to ‘put power in the hands of the people’, though while the service offers great insight once accessed, the outage meant that at the time of launch it failed to engage its audience as a trustworthy platform. Implementing the right solutions helps the IT team to better manage and prioritise traffic to ensure consistent web performance that users can rely on.