Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: Coronavirus: Business and technology in a pandemic

Department of Finance boasts GovCMS withstood COVID-19 traffic spikes

The GovCMS platform recorded 100,000 page views per minute and 187,000 concurrent users during the peak of the pandemic.

The Australian Department of Finance has boasted how its Drupal-based Government Content Management System (GovCMS) withstood a record number of visitors on the platform during the height of the coronavirus pandemic.

At the peak of the pandemic, the GovCMS platform saw 2 billion hits in a month, recorded 100,000 page views per minute, and 187,000 concurrent users on the platform.

The government website that experienced the most traffic was naturally the health.gov.au website, which experienced a 760% increase in traffic with up to six million visits a day.

According to health.gov.au technical product owner Danni Marlow, the website saw up to 20,000 concurrent users on the Department of Health website and "even under immense traffic, page load time remained under 2.7 seconds".

"GovCMS' robust tooling allowed us to seamlessly deploy developments at any time of the day, including during peak times. This allowed us to remain responsive to changing needs," he said.

"We usually deploy IT updates during periods of low traffic which we couldn't do during the pandemic. We ended up deploying updates whenever we needed to and it was seamless meaning customers could always access the most up-to-date information."

Meanwhile, the serviceaustralia.gov.au website during the peak of the coronavirus pandemic saw a 650% uplift in traffic.

Smart Traveller, Safe Work Australia, the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services, and the South Australian Department of Education also saw visitor increases during the pandemic, Finance added. 

"We worked closely with agencies on the front line to ensure publishing activities and announcements likely to cause large spikes in traffic could be delivered without affecting the platform," Department of Finance online services assistant secretary Sharyn Clarkson said.

"We had website engineers standing by to ensure the platform remained stable. These are unprecedented times, the volumes certainly tested us, but ultimately proved the strength and capability of GovCMS. I'm delighted with the reliability and support we've been able to provide agencies, it ensured Australians were able to access information to keep themselves safe."

Dubbed as "one of the quiet achievers in government IT" by Finance, GovCMS currently hosts 327 websites for 96 agencies across all tiers of government.

The platform was developed in conjunction with Acquia -- a company founded by Drupal's creator, Dries Buytaert, to provide commercial-grade support for the platform -- to reduce the technology and compliance burden on government agencies, while providing a more cost-effective option for managing websites. It went live in 2014 and was made generally available in 2015. 

Back in 2018, Finance was seeking another vendor to deliver further platform efficiencies to GovCMS. At the time, it stated it wanted to improve the overall delivery of mobile-responsive websites across the government, including having a more "standardised" user experience when dealing with whole-of-government.

Despite all the reported success by Finance, it wasn't completely smooth sailing for all Australian government websites during the peak of the pandemic. The federal government's online service portal myGov crashed as Australians flocked to sign up for COVID-19 income support.

At one point, Prime Minister Scott Morrison asked thousands of Australians that were without jobs due to the pandemic to be patient, while the technology behind the myGov portal was upgraded to handle the additional traffic.  

"I would urge people as difficult as it is, work with us. We are working to get this up as high and as far as we can, but we have had a multiple, many, many, many times over what is normally expected from this system -- and it was already upgraded and it's been upgraded again, and it will be upgraded again," he said at the time.  

Services Australia CEO Rebecca Skinner defended the myGov meltdown telling a Senate Select Committee on COVID-19 that while more capacity was needed, it wasn't prudent to anticipate one-off events.

"What we do know is that we needed a larger capacity on myGov, but it is probably right to say you wouldn't design a computer system to cope with three million logins at one time when the business as usual proposition is about 90,000," Skinner said.

"The cost of building a system that could cope with that one day wouldn't really be a balance of investment.

"What we do know is that we probably needed to ramp up quickly -- which we did -- by the end of that week the myGov platform was substantially more stable and able to cope with the larger numbers of logins."

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