A website that is only open during business hours? Here’s the likely reason for this craziness.
It feels like the ultimate Kafkaesque expression of government bureaucracy: the United States’ Social Security Administration (SSA) website has listed hours when it is open.
If you try to access the secure post-login portion of the SSA website (known as My Social Security account, at ssa.gov) outside of these hours, you’ll just be met by an error message, stating the hours of operation and encouraging you to return at these times:
Thankfully, the hours are not the simple 8 AM to 5 PM that you might find if you showed up in person. On weekdays, the site is up for 20 hours per day, with 4 hours of downtime in the early morning. On weekends, the site is live for less time; 18 hours on Saturday and 15.5 hours on Sunday.
At least it’s open still on Federal holidays?
Now, this article isn't going to talk about whether this is a good decision from the SSA in regards to customer service and ease of access. (A likely contributing factor is that the SSA website is quite ancient, in internet terms, and this may have been more acceptable before today’s “always on” culture.)
Instead, let's discuss whether there’s any logic behind the decision to implement hours for a website. What’s the goal behind restricting when people can log in to access their My SSA Account?
Building it is the easy part — now, you have to maintain it
Many government websites have a strict contract for uptime. Availability of a website is often described in “nines” of uptime; four nines of uptime, for example, means that the site is available 99.99% of the time. Over the course of one year (365 days), this means that the site cannot be down for any longer than about 52 minutes.
That’s great, if a site is never going to change or if it never needs any maintenance. But everything ages, and needs grow beyond the initial project scope. Sooner or later, the site will have to come down in order to get repairs or upgrades, just like how subways sometimes need to close a route in order to perform maintenance on the rails.
The Social Security Administration’s website is vital for many government processes, as nearly 70 million Americans receive some form of Social Security payment. By designating specific hours of downtime, it ensures that there will never be any unexpected occurrence when someone visits the site during a maintenance window and finds themselves without an answer as to when it may return to full operating capacity.
Yes, this means that there’s probably more site downtime overall than if they only took it down when there were specific maintenance updates to make — but this way, it’s more predictable.
Or is there another possible reason, perhaps due to the limitations of the system itself?
Always a new batch of data to process
Whenever we have a lot of data, we usually store it in a database. A database is really just a structured system for organizing data, keeping it in a fashion where it can be accessed, sorted, and new data can be slotted in without needing to redo all the old stuff already there.
These days, most databases are able to be accessed and edited at the same time. This is great if you’re running, say, a database that tracks the contents of a warehouse. You want to be able to update the database every time that new orders go out or new shipments come in, and you also want to be able to query the database at any time to tell how many supplies you have in stock.
But this wasn’t always the case. In the olden times (like the 1990s), many databases couldn’t support access and modification at the same time.
This was also an issue as databases grew larger, especially in the past when computers had less memory to hold all the information in memory at once. Consider a database with a hundred million records; it might take twenty minutes to run a query on it to search all those records for the ones that match your criteria.
What happens if the database updates while that search is in progress? Does the search start over? Do you only search the records that were present when the search started, ignoring all newly added ones? Do you keep track of which records were updated since the search started, so you can check those after you get through the original records?
One solution to this is to maintain a “live” database and a “reporting” copy of that database. The “reporting” database copy shows the records at the last update, while new updates are pushed to the “live” copy instead. Then, once a day (or any other time period), the contents of the “live” instance are copied over onto the “reporting” instance to update it.
When would you do this copying and updating of the instance being used to search and generate reports?
During the regularly scheduled downtime, of course.
This method of updating databases is called batch processing, where changes are stored up until a whole batch of them are ready to be introduced to the production site. It’s still commonly used, but was especially prevalent for dealing with large databases, like the one behind the Social Security Administration’s site.
Should the SSA update their site to be open 24/7?
At first thought, the answer to this question seems like an obvious yes. This is the internet! Data should be free and available, and since you can access it at any time, there shouldn’t be any hours set on the website where it would intentionally be taken offline!
But for the purposes of the SSA, keeping their site operating with a regular maintenance window of downtime, whether that is for fixes and upgrades, batch processing of new records, or both, the design is valid. And while that time window (turning off at 8 PM Pacific time on weekends??) can be annoying for some, it is at least predictable.
Most of our Social Security data doesn’t change, day to day. Unlike other websites, like a stock trading site, there’s no immediate time-sensitive actions that need to be performed by individuals which would dictate the site being accessible at any time, day or night.
It’s unfortunate, but most of our systems operate on an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach. And the Social Security Administration is going to be a very risk-averse group that won’t want to tinker with their system and risk introducing new issues. In fact, it’s likely that many of their systems haven’t been updated in years, and likely won’t be revised until the current systems have exhausted their capacity.
Instead, it’s likely that the SSA site having downtime every day will continue to exist, a living relic of the past. Perhaps they will work at some point on upgrading their systems and reducing the length of that downtime window; instead of 4 hours per day, perhaps they can reduce it to 2 hours per day, including less weekend downtime.
But for now, it’s likely to remain, as:
- It’s a government site, which means any upgrade would need to be funded by taxpayers and be allocated by the federal government;
- It’s not causing significant pain to its users, or at least not enough pain to warrant legislators to push for changes.
- There are many other potential upgrades for SSA to focus on that will have a greater impact for taxpayer happiness than longer website hours.
It’s a sad fact of product development that, many times, upgrades that seem reasonable and easy enough are pushed aside, because there are always other issues or concerns that are higher priority or more pressing.
In summary: SSA’s website likely keeps hours for updates and batch processing
It seems like a strange anachronism for today’s always-on, always-open internet world, but the Social Security Administration’s account system keeps hours where it is unavailable; the website is closed from 1–5 AM east coast time on weekdays, and for even more time on weekends.
The SSA doesn’t declare an explicit reason why they have limited hours for their site, but the most likely two reasons are so that the government can make regular updates to the administration’s back-end systems, and so that their older databases can get additions or changes made to its records. Many older databases can’t be updated while they are being actively accessed — and it is acceptable for a site like the SSA to have downtime outside of working hours.
This isn’t likely to change anytime soon, since it’s not causing much pain (except to interested night owls). Instead, it’s a reminder of how our systems used to work — and, perhaps, how old some of the systems that keep the government running truly are.
Have you ever seen stated hours for a website before, either with SSA or somewhere else?
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