One of the key problems with the 2016 online census was the architecture, but also the how the whole thing was organised and who was contracted for the job.
IBM, for the $9.6mln it got paid for the job, built something very clunky. They used Java, which is not bad per-se but the system also required Java on the client (browser) side which is just daft. The number of systems that either don’t have or can’t run client side Java is huge, and for the rest you get into version conflict mayhem. And it’s clunky, it’s a lot of code and heaviness to shuffle around which is not a great approach to build a scalable site.
If you think of the census form, the total amount of data gathered is not actually that big. It doesn’t require any particularly complicated database or storage setup.
The scale of the online census task is quite small, relative to many websites. Not only Twitter/Facebook/etc but many e-commerce sites have a vastly more complicated situation where they have to serve many different pages of which many are dynamic, lots of writes and shopping carts that get updated in chunks, then the whole checkout process…. and all that can work fine too. So the census is not a big or complicated problem, really. It just needs to be done right.
The fact that IBM, for $9.6mln, completely stuffed it, is a very serious indicator of where the relevant skills and innovation capability lies. For this type of job, not with IBM. Going with a big company does not guarantee good results. If you reckon this is a one-off, ask Queensland Health about their payroll debacle (SAP implemented by… IBM). Similarly, very expensive is not necessarily better. It can be just very costly, in so many respects.
ABS/IBM also declined the NextDC offer for datacenter level firewalling and DoS protection. Another serious mistake. But application architecture too affects security. When I googled for Census 2016 on census night, the first link that came up was a Census staff login. That’s just beyond astonishing. That should not be public at all. It doesn’t need to be on a public domain, and probably should be only accessible via a VPN.
The company that did the online Census 2016 load testing for another half million $ and bragged before census night about how well their team worked together with the ABS and IBM people, should also be seriously embarrassed about the shoddy job they delivered. From their own site:
“Revolution IT worked in a highly collaborative manner, and their subject knowledge, expertise and advice were key to achieve our project goals and objectives. We were impressed with how well they engaged with our e-Census solution provider (another private company). [IBM]”
Success is not defined by how well your team worked, it’s very simply proven by how well the system deals with the real world. In this case, it didn’t. At all. So, total process fail. It would have been very wise to wait with the bragging until after census night. If it holds up well, you can brag. Otherwise, you hush and no public embarrassment at least on that front. PR fail.
Their public statement (after census night) is at http://revolutionit.com.au/revolution-it-q-a-australian-bureau-of-statistics-abs-2016-census-website/ where they explain that the Census site was taken offline due to security concerns, and since security was not part of their brief, their performance was all ok and successful. But come on now, how is security not part of any practical testing? It is by nature an integral part of how things work online! Implementation of security may impact performance, and obviously security aspects always impact availability – and without availability you have no performance at all.
All in all, Census 2016 is a brilliant example of “how not to” in modern online architecture.
And to prove all this again, two students at QUT in Brisbane just built the same in a few days and for about $500 which I understand was mostly pizza costs.
Read that story at http://eftm.com.au/2016/08/how-two-uni-students-built-a-better-census-site-in-just-54-hours-for-500-30752 (that write-up is rather populist simplistic, but the fact that a few students can very well design a site like this, and properly, is absolutely correct).