House Struggles With Bailout-Related E-mail Deluge

The IT staff at the U.S. House of Representatives is taking emergency steps in an effort to handle a fourfold increase in the amount of e-mail that has come in via the House's Web site since Sunday, when the text of the proposed Wall Street bailout bill was posted online.

The crush of e-mails from constituents about the proposed $700 billion bailout clogged the servers hosting the House.gov Web site, making it inaccessible for lengthy periods of time on Monday, when the House voted down the bill and triggered a massive sell-off in the stock market.

On Tuesday, the House Office of the Chief Administrative Officer, which provides operations and technical support to a community of 10,000 House members and staffers, implemented a stopgap traffic management measure that seems to have eased the congestion somewhat, said CAO spokesman Jeff Ventura.

In hopes of further improving the site's performance, the CAO Wednesday was testing what, based on Ventura's description, appears to be load balancing technology from a network management vendor. If the tests prove successful, the technology will be deployed on a permanent basis, he said, while declining to identify the involved vendor.

When the House.gov site was checked by Computerworld Wednesday morning, it was accessible but only after a delay, and it appeared to be responding slowly overall. Parts of the site seemed to be functioning Wednesday afternoon. But the links from the home page to individual representatives and committees, as well as the "Find Your Representative" and "Write Your Representative" applications, were still sluggish or completely unresponsive.

Ventura said the congestion crisis began on Sunday, after the details of the proposed bailout bill were posted on the Web page of the House Committee on Financial Services. Almost immediately, there was a huge spike in traffic on the House site from people wanting to read the text of the bill. Much of that likely resulted from the fact that the House was scheduled to vote on the proposal the very next day. "The timeline was so abbreviated until Congress voted on that bill that we had a surge of people who wanted to read it and download it," Ventura said.

Bad as the increased traffic itself was, what really made things worse was that many of the people who came to the site tried to send e-mails to legislators using the embedded "Write Your Representative" program. That application "was never meant to handle the enormous load" of messages it began receiving on Sunday, Ventura said, adding that the app's performance "was so degraded that combined with the traffic, it started to clog our entire system."

That caused a massive backup in access, and would-be users were completely locked out of the site by Monday afternoon. "The alarm bells started ringing on Sunday night," Ventura said. "Monday afternoon, it got worse. It snowballed. Monday was absolutely awful."

According to Ventura, the situation was exacerbated by the fact that advocacy groups around the country were dumping large quantities of e-mails from citizens directly into the "Write Your Representative" application.

After an emergency meeting of IT staffers on Monday night, the CAO Tuesday began regulating the flow of e-mails coming from the application as a temporary solution to the problem. "We basically put a traffic cop inside the application," Ventura said. "We only let so many people use the application at a time. When traffic peaked, we shut it off and gave people a sort of digital busy signal."

The work-around may not have been the optimal way to resolve the congestion problem, but it helped to mitigate the immediate crisis and restore accessibility to the Web site, Ventura said. He added that the traffic and performance problems don't appear to have affected the delivery of e-mails to legislators from people who were able to successfully get into the "Write Your Representative" application and fill out the message form.

The traffic on the House.gov site this week has reached unprecedented levels, Ventura noted. "The 9/11 Commission report caused a spike in traffic to the point where we noticed degradation," but not to the extent of what the site has seen since Sunday, he said.

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