Thursday, January 8, 2009

IT testing proves instrumental in reporting 2008 election results - Platform Lab

On election night in 2004, the outcome of the presidential election rested with Ohio voters. Thousands of campaign workers, journalists and interested voters jammed the web site of the Ohio Secretary of State – the state’s chief elections officer – to track results of the presidential race and other contests around the state. At times, the Web site slowed and even locked up, frustrating visitors to the site.

Again this year, all eyes in the nation were on the U.S. presidential election. Because Ohio was the key swing state, the Ohio Secretary of State’s office knew it was critical for its Web site to provide thousands of users with up-to-the-minute results on Election Day. Upon taking office, one of Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner’s goals was to ensure that the Secretary of State’s Web site would perform with speed and accuracy in reporting election results as the votes were tallied throughout election night. She was able to accomplish that by conducting pre-election testing of the Web site’s capacity to handle visitors.

Prior to this year’s election, Brunner’s information technology staff revamped the entire Web site’s reporting system. To ensure that the system would perform well, Brunner also wanted to “conduct a series of stress-testing scenarios that provide confidence in the system to handle at least 5,000 hits a second on election night without experiencing performance issues.”

The Secretary of State’s office chose Platform Lab to provide the test infrastructure based on its past performance in providing IT facilities and testing for other government departments, such as the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services, Department of Auditor and Department of Development, to name a few. Managed and operated by TechColumbus, Platform Lab is a non-profit information technology testing and training facility.

In 2004, just 2,200 concurrent users stressed the Secretary of State’s computer system. “Knowing that even more people would be hitting the site during this election night, the state needed to verify that the
site would hold up,” said Steve Gruetter, Director of Platform Lab. “They knew they could absolutely not afford to go down on election night.”

Platform Lab helped line up a consultant – Everest Technologies Inc. of Worthington – to provide expertise to run the test. “We worked with the Secretary of State’s IT people to create a series of virtual user profiles that would simulate the traffic we anticipated on election night,” said Bob Malik, Vice President of Everest. The stress test was conducted for two weeks prior to Election Day with Platform Lab providing the location, hardware, network, bandwidth and a software tool called NEOload. The test entailed loading the system with those virtual users who would hypothetically log on to various areas of the site at the same time.
“The goals of the stress test were to load and stretch the capacity of our Election Night Reporting system,” said Robert Mangan, Chief Information Officer with the Ohio Secretary of State. “We wanted to ensure performance while documenting the level at which we would experience operational problems that would have required us to activate our backup sight in our Cleveland office as election returns continued to come in throughout the night.” The test showed that re-engineering the site was the right move for the Secretary of State’s office and that the in-house IT staff’s hard work was well worth the effort.

In the end, the test showed that over 7,500 users could be logged on at the same time on the state’s Election Night Reporting site without a slowdown or crash. “We didn’t have to fi x anything – the site was perfect,” Malik said. “We’ve been doing this kind of testing for 12 years and you don’t see a perfect site very often.”
The public also noticed the site’s smooth operation. “Our office received a number of positive comments about Ohio’s new Election Night Reporting system,” Mangan said. “Unlike 2004, there were no complaints
about performance. Stress testing provided great value in terms of dollars spent. It validated that our project plan, with its design requirements and the technology platform, was properly configured to meet the demand we expected.”

In addition to government work, Platform Lab conducts testing on a variety of IT systems for commercial sector clients including Victoria’s Secret Catalog, DSW Shoe Warehouse, and Century Insurance Group, among others. “Platform Lab was a key partner in helping Century Insurance load test a key application in our agency portal, Century Online, an important strategic link between our customers and our agents. The support Platform Labs provided was invaluable,” said Doug Bond, Chief Technology Officer with Century Insurance Group. “The Secretary of State project is one of many cases where Platform Lab helped its clients avoid big headaches,” said Tim Haynes, TechColumbus Vice President of Member Services and Marketing. “There are stories every day about how Internet user traffic pushes an application to its limits. You never know what those breaking points are until you stress the system.”
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