The Obamacare Web Debacle: A Cautionary Note for the Cloud

If cloud projects are really this risky and expensive, then the very future of mobility (and perhaps all of IT) is in doubt.

I've been following all of the outrageous news, or hyperbole, depending upon your personal politics, regarding the Website that is a key element of the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, a/k/a Obamacare. And, as I've noted before and irrespective of the politics central to this specific example, if software projects like this one are really this expensive and really this risky, then the future of mobility itself is in doubt.

I've argued that mobility depends upon Web/cloud services because (a) developing apps unique to a given handset/OS (and perhaps release of that OS) combination is simply way too expensive and with costs increasing dramatically over time as the number of possible combinations requiring Q/A and support snowballs, and (b) because there's no way that an app will be able to cache all of the data it requires, as the sheer volume and shared nature of that data precludes such. A cloud-based solution is thus ideal for the vast majority of multi-user organizational or enterprise IT applications - essentially everything beyond basic personal productivity, games and entertainment, and other assorted apps of interest only to individuals.

And yet we have an enormous counterexample to this vision in the form of the launch of the ACA Website. It has been argued that the problem here is simply governmental incompetence - the players on the buying side have no skin in the game, lack the required management skills, have way too much budget, and their future personal prospects are unconnected to the quality of their work. And the players on the selling side - those who are doing the work here - don't seem to understand good technical practice (or are simply incompetent), and regardless are used to charging ridiculously inflated prices because government buyers willingly pay them. The taxpayers usually don't see all of this, so they don't care. But, really, it's hard to believe anyone sets out to do such a poor job. And, to be fair, such failures have also been known to occur in the private sector as well.

In the case of the ACA Website, by the way, no one really seems to know how much money has gone into this mess so far - but let's assume the astounding sum of around US$150M. Provisioning a Website for this application just doesn't seem suffciently difficult enough to me to justify such spending. And this is just the latest in a long line of failures; we're talking billions of dollars wasted over the years on government IT projects, and why the outrage isn't at least palpable is puzzling, to say the very least, to me. And, again, this independent of the politics that is necessarily a factor in both the news and the debate.

But speaking of that, I'm personally not a fan of Obamacare because it's more about assuring the profits of health insurance companies rather than actually doing something about healthcare, and, more importantly, the health of Americans. Having lived with the prototype here in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for the past few years, all I've seen is a steady decline in benefits and a rapid increase in price. I suspect (analyst/one-time political-science major hat on) that the Republicans, who should absolutely love this idea since they tend to place the interests of business over all other concerns, hate it because the Democrats like it, and the Democrats like it because they know it's not going to work very well and thus opens the door to a single-payer scheme, which I suspect has been their agenda all along. While I agree that healthcare isn't really amenable to free-market solutions, as supply and demand never balance in this case, the current system - and that means Obamacare - is designed to make money for investors, not keep people healthy and help them get well when they are ill. Obamacare thus won't be with us for very long, and the ROI of the non-functional Website will be, um, small, regardless.

Having offended just about everyone at this point, I'll close. But the key point here remains: the future of mobility is absolutely dependent upon the cloud. But if cloud projects are going to turn out as badly as this one has, in terms of both quality and cost, then mobility itself may, in fact, be in jeopardy.

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