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A team of less than 10 people managed to scale up cloud servers to cope with 20,000 users per hours on their website. Why is it so hard for the 5,600-strong DVLA?

The DVLA’s new online service for hiring a car crashed due to high volumes of traffic yesterday, as the abolition of the paper counterpart took effect.

About a fifth of users were unable to access the website, according to performance statistics on GOV.UK. Many of them are relying on it to pick up hire cars abroad.

Sound familiar? Exactly the same thing happened only eight months ago. The DVLA website crashed as 250,000 motorists tried to renew their tax online on the day paper discs were abolished.

At the time the agency blamed “unprecedented demand”. But it did not explain why it had failed to prepare for the inevitable surge in users. It was no coincidence the peak in demand occurred on the day paper discs were phased out.

Given precisely the same thing has happened again eight months later, it seems they failed to learn the lessons from last time.

The agency insisted more than 20,000 drivers had managed to get through to the website yesterday.

ComputerworldUK got a ‘405 error’ when we tried to access it yesterday afternoon. And a quick look at performance statistics on GOV.UK shows uptime fell from 99 percent to 80 percent yesterday and average page load time soared from 0.6 to 7.1 seconds.

These might sound like small changes, but they are difference between success and failure online.

If a page doesn’t load within three seconds, over half of users will abandon the website, research has found.

The fact user satisfaction with DVLA’s service tumbled from about 91 percent to 82 percent yesterday again demonstrates the impact of poor website performance.

A number of people took to Twitter to vent their frustration.

“As the DVLA starts new system for car hiring, it seems like another case of "The computer says NO", one said.

“There is no excuse for this,” tweeted web performance testing expert Graham Perry.

“DVLA View My Licence site seems to have fallen over due to high demand, not an auspicious start on day 1 of abolition of paper counterpart!” Phil Clifford said.

“Let's all watch carefully to see what bonuses are paid this year despite another catastrophic failure by management,” tweeted Owain Powell-Jones.

Preparing for peaks in website demand is not hard: it’s something most businesses and even tiny startups manage to cope with every day across the UK.

Vote for Policies, a website run by a team of less than 10 people, managed to scale up its cloud servers to cope with 20,000 users per hour before the election last month.

So why is preparing for traffic peaks something the DVLA, with its 5,600 employees, has still failed to grasp?

“Digital services have to be built to perform perfectly every time, or customers are going to get hacked off pretty quickly," Michael Allen, solutions VP for web performance management firm Dynatrace, said.

"The age-old excuse of ‘exceptional’ demand and high traffic volumes is worn out and just doesn’t wash anymore; these problems happen often enough, so they’re entirely predictable. Testing that websites can cope with high levels of traffic isn’t exactly rocket science," Allen added.

People manage to do their shopping, banking and book their holidays online. They are not prepared to excuse poor performance on government websites.

It’s time for the DVLA to do a serious investigation into why its website has failed to meet demand, twice, and take action to fix it.

And as growing numbers of government services move online, it’s a reminder to all departments, agencies and councils: the public will not forgive you if your website doesn't work.