The government has not yet released an official explanation for the crash of the UK voter registration website earlier this week – but Computer Weekly has learned the likely cause.
How ironic it is, that the subsequent debate about the role of technology in supporting our democratic right to vote was caused by… the Foreign Office.
Unlike most of the Gov.uk website, the voter registration service runs in a datacentre operated by FCO Services – the IT arm of the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO), Computer Weekly has been told.
Gov.uk, by contrast, is run in a cloud environment using two suppliers – Skyscape and Carrenza – with load balancing and disaster recovery across the two clouds. The service is a genuine pay-as-you-go cloud, charged per virtual machine per hour – and with sufficient spare capacity to scale up and down according to demand.
According to insiders, if voter registration operated in the same environment, the late spike in user demand – prompted by the deadline for registering to vote in the EU referendum – would not have caused any performance problems.
However, our sources suggest that the real problem was not the datacentre but the software itself. Insiders say the issue that crashed the website was at the application level, not the infrastructure.
Apparently, the software has not been developed to run as a cloud-native application, and as a result it runs on a single instance, tied to a single datacentre, which meant no room for manoeuvre once a problem occurred.
The Cabinet Office does not yet want to discuss the problem further – a spokesman said: “There was a problem with the register to vote site, due to the unprecedented demand we experienced. We are not going to be discussing any further details until we have looked into exactly what happened, but clearly there will be lessons learned.”
Given the focus that the Government Digital Service (GDS) has placed on using the cloud for Gov.uk and for other new systems, the obvious questions are: Why was voter registration treated differently? Why was the software developed to run outside the Gov.uk cloud? And why was it not written as a cloud-native application?
Insiders say the voter registration service is a relatively simple application – it collects data from people applying to vote, and then sends that data to the returning officer at the relevant local council, who are responsible for maintaining the electoral register in their area.
The website handled a large increase in traffic in the days leading up to the deadline, but something triggered a fatal crash as demand spiked in the final hours. It’s likely that someone in GDS knows exactly why – and the public deserves to hear their explanation.