Thursday, November 16, 2017

The Private Option

There's a famous case of a fumbled rollout of a website:, the federal health insurance exchange used by independent insurance customers in about two-thirds of states in the USA.

These days, the an updated version of functions fine, so you're wondering what the hubbub was about when it was launched.

Poor Debut

Proponents said that a slow rollout is not unexpected. People who managed the health insurance exchange in Massachusetts that served as the model for the Affordable Care Act say that the same initial bugs and slow adoption affected their program too.

The site has performance and scalability problems, has an overly complex user experience, and sometimes calculates wrong answers. The result is that of the 100,000 people who signed up for independent health insurance after October 1 2013, fewer than 27,000 used the federal exchange.

Why Did it Fail? had a major obstacle: they had to handle several times the originally anticipated demand. The original plan was for each US state to implement their own health insurance exchange, to serve people in their respective state, and would handle those who couldn't. It was assumed that only a small minority of states would rely on, and these would be the states with smaller populations. As it turned out, a majority of states refused to implement their own exchange web sites. In December 2012, when the states were required to have blueprints describing their solution, reportedly 25 states didn't meet that deadline

By the time of the rollout of the ACA, only 14 states were signing people up using their own state-run exchange, whereas the rest of the states--more than two-thirds--were relying on the federal exchange. These include some of the highest population states like Texas and Florida, and 20 states who had taken federal money to plan their state exchanges, but ultimately also relied on the federal exchange.

The Private Option

A few young programmers created an alternative web site they call in their spare time, after the ACA debut on October 1 2013. Their web site is a prototype effort to make a more streamlined portal for people to find the health insurance plans they're eligible for. It seems to work, and it's very fast. It uses raw data that is accessible publicly from the federal government.

It's a valid question then: why didn't the federal government—or any of the states—employ a small team of web experts to throw together such a site for a fraction of the cost? doesn't have all the functions that is supposed to. It doesn't do credit checks, it doesn't actually even sign anyone up for health care. It just allows consumers to find the data that pertains to them, and then it links to the websites for the respective insurance carriers. And doesn't create the data—it might be true that part of the effort behind has created the raw data that uses.

Also, isn't (yet) serving tens of millions of users, as is supposed to do. I work for Percona, a company that offers consulting and support for database operations, which is just one aspect of web site scalability. Scalability for a web site is complex, much more difficult than most people appreciate.

But it's worth noting that even with these limitations, there's a pretty big difference between a three guys throwing together a working website in a few days, versus major federal IT contractor CGI Federal spending $174 million since they announced winning the contract in December 2011 (i.e. 22 months until their go-live deadline of October 1 2013), but they still failed to implement a site that could handle the demand.


So here's some hindsight views on the project:

  • They should have anticipated the demand from all 50 states. This may have been over-engineering, since the intention was to serve only a minority. But they had no control over which states would agree to create their own exchanges, and every reason to think there would be political resistance to doing so.
  • They should have had a beta test period. No large-scale web site can handle the load of millions of users on its first day, not even sites implemented by major web experts like Google and Amazon. They restrict enrollment to a limited subset of their users, sometimes by invitation only. They leave enough time to work out the problems before going fully public.
  • They should have provided raw data only, not the whole web site. Let other entrepreneurs innovate the best way to search the data. Maybe someone would even create a Facebook game for selecting your insurance.
  • They should have set the deadline after scoping the project.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Thoughts on Wonder Woman

The first Wonder Woman film was released this month, and it was worth the wait. It has generated a lot of commentary. You don't see this kind of attention paid to most superhero films. There's a lot to recommend the film.

Here is a summary of the plot (WARNING: SPOILERS):
  • In youth, the protagonist continually is told not to expect to be a hero or warrior, despite a desire to do so.
  • Two of the protagonists mentors, one of whom is a military leader, disagree about whether the protagonist is ready to go to war.
  • The mettle of the protagonist is proven during a combat exercise.
  • The protagonist meets a competent and loyal spy, who works for an ally nation.
  • The mentor who first had faith in the protagonist is killed.
  • The protagonist is driven to subterfuge in a desire to join the war effort.
  • The war is against German nationalists.
  • Enemy agents attack the protagonist and the agent in their home city. The protagonist apprehends the attacker, but before questioning, the enemy commits suicide with a cyanide capsule.
  • The protagonist carries a bulletproof shield.
  • The protagonist and the spy recruit a rag-tag group of fighters to help them get behind enemy lines and sabotage a German weapon facility.
  • The protagonist is ordered not to charge into battle, but disobeys the order, to save the lives of a a small number of people.
  • The spy love interest teaches the protagonist to dance.
  • There are two principle German villain characters. 
  • One of the German villains is disfigured and wears a mask. 
  • One of the German villains is a creepy little scientist.
  • The German villain characters turn on their superiors, and have their own agenda of world conquest.
  • The German villain's plan is to use weapons of mass destruction against allied cities. The weapons are loaded onto a comically oversized German bomber plane.
  • The blond-haired man climbs aboard the plane as it is taking off, fights the crew and pilot, takes over the plane, and sacrifices his life by ditching the plane away from populated areas.

Oh wait—this is the plot of Captain America: The First Avenger (2011).

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Running PHP at a Windows 10 Command Line

A technical writer friend of mine asked me to help her this week. She needs to run PHP scripts at the command-line on Windows 10. She installed WAMP Server which includes PHP. I think she just needs to change the PATH so when she runs "php" in a command window, it will find the PHP interpreter.

I hardly use Windows these days. But I do have a Windows PC around, so I tried installing WAMP, and then figuring out what it takes to change one's PATH on Windows these days. Here are the steps, with screen shots.

1. Open Windows Settings and click the System icon:

2. Click the "About" link

3. Click the "System info" link

4. Click the "Advanced system settings" link

5. Click the "Environment Variables..." button

6. Select the "Path" variable and click the "Edit..." button

7. Click the "Browse..." button

8. Browse to the directory "C:\wamp64\bin\php\php5.6.19" and click the "Ok" button

9. Continue clicking the "Ok" buttons for all the windows that you opened during this exercise

10. Open a command shell window and run "php -v" to confirm you can now use PHP via your PATH.

Now you should be able to run PHP in the command window from any directory.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Webinar on PHP and MySQL Replication

Using MySQL replication gives you an opportunity to scale out read queries. However, MySQL replication is asynchronous; the slave may fall behind.

This Wednesday, January 23 2013, I'll be presenting a free webinar about using MySQL replication on busy PHP web sites.  Register here:

Applications have variable tolerance for data being out of sync on slaves, so we need methods for the application to query slaves only when their data are within tolerance. I describe the levels of tolerance, and give examples and methods for choosing the right tolerance level in your application. 

This talk shows the correct ways to check when the slave is safe to query, and how to architect your PHP application to adapt dynamically when the slave is out of sync.

I'll also demonstrate an extension to the popular PHP Doctrine database access library, to help application developers using MySQL to make use of read slaves as effectively as possible.

Please join me in this free webinar this Wednesday!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

C Pointers Explained, Really

While I was in college, a friend of mine complained that he was confused while programming in C, struggling to learn the syntax for pointers.

He gave the example of something like: *x=**p++ being ugly and unreadable, with too many operations layered on each other, making it hard to tell what was happening.  He said he had done a bit of programming with assembly language, but he wasn't accustomed to the nuances of C.

I wrote the following explanation on our student message board, and I got a lot of good feedback.  Some people said that they had been programming in C for years, but not until they read my post did they finally understand pointers.  So here it is, unearthed from my backups and slightly edited.  I hope it helps someone again...

Message 1956 (8 left): Thu Jan 25 1990  2:44am
From: Bill! (easterb@ucscb)
Subject: Okay

Well, if you know assembly, you have a head start
on many of the cis freshpersons here.  You at least know
about memory maps:  RAM is a long long array of bytes.
It helped me to learn about pointers if I kept this in mind.
For some reason, books and instructors talking about
pointers want to overlook this.

When I have some code:

int n;
int *p;

There is a place in my memory that looks like this:

Address:   :
  0x5100|     |   n is an integer, one machine word big
  0x5104|     |   p is a pointer, also one word big
  0x5108|     |   other unused memory

Let's give these variables some values.
I set n to be the number 151.

        n = 151;

I set the pointer p to point to the integer n.

        p = &n;

That says, "the value of the variable p is assigned the
address of the variable n".

Address:     :     Value at that address:
  0x5100  | 151|  n
  0x5104  |5100|  p
  0x5108  |   ?|

Now I want to print out the value of n, by two ways.

        printf("n is %d.\n", n);
        printf("n is %d.\n", *p);

The * operator says, "give me the object at the following address."
The object's type is the type that the pointer was declared as.
So, since we declared "int *p", the object pointed at will be
_assumed_ by C to be an int.  In this case, we were careful to
make this coincide with what we were pointing at.

Now I want to print out the memory address of n.

        printf("n is located at $%x.\n", &n);
        printf("n is located at $%x.\n", p);

The & operator says, "tell me the address where the following object
starts."  In this case, it is hex 5100 (I put a '$' before it, to
conform to the Assembly notation I am used to).
Notice the _value_ of p is an address.

Hm.  Does p have an address?  Sure.  It is a variable, and all
variables have their own address.  The address of p is hex 5104.

        printf("p is located at $%x.\n", &p);

Here we are taking the address of a pointer variable, 
using the & operator.

char name[] = "Bill";
char *p;
int *q;

Now we have an array to play with.  Here's how memory looks now:

 0x5100 |'B'|  "name" is an address constant that has value hex 5100
 0x5101 |'i'|  char: 1 byte
 0x5102 |'l'|  char: 1 byte
 0x5103 |'l'|  char: 1 byte
 0x5104 |\0 |  char: 1 byte
 0x5105 |   |  p is a pointer: 1 word
 0x5109 |   |  q is a pointer: 1 word

        p = name;

We set p to the value of name.  Now p has value hex 5100 too.
We can use the * dereferencing operator on p, and get the
character 'B' as a result.

Now what happens if I do this:


The pointer p is incremented.  What value does it have now?
Hex 5101.  Pretty simple.

Now let's try something irresponsible:

        q = name;

But q is a pointer to int!  If we dereference q, it will take
the word (typically 4 bytes) beginning at address "name" (which
is hex 5100) and try to convert it to an int.  'B', 'i', 'l', 'l'
converted to an int will be some large number, dependant on the
bit-ordering algorithm on your machine's architecture.  On ucscb,
it becomes 1114205292.  (to see how, line up the binary representation
of the ascii values for those 4 characters, and then run the 32 bits
together, and convert that resultant binary number as an integer.)

What we have just seen here is a key issue of pointers that I
mentioned earlier:  C assumes that what they are pointing at
is an object of the type that the pointer was designed to point at.
It is up to the programmer to make sure this happens correctly.


The int pointer is incremented.  What value does it have now?
Hex 5104.  Huh?!?  The answer is simple if you accept the above
paragraph.  It gets incremented by the size of the object it
_thinks_ it is pointing at.  It's an int pointer, so incrementing
it makes it advance a number of bytes equal to the size of an int.

Now print the dereferenced value of q (i.e. the value of the object
q is pointing to).  Well, it's pointing at a null byte, and then
the first 3 bytes of the char *p.  Now we're all messed up.
Nice going.  Try to convert _that_ to an integer representation.
Well actually, C will do it happily.  But it'll be another weird 

int n;

        n = 151;

int x;
        printf("%d.\n", x);

Here is a simple program that passes an int "by value".
That is, it copies the value of n into the new variable x!

 0x5100 |151|  n is an integer
 0x5104 |151|  x is another integer

When we mention x, we are using the value at location 5104,
and we can change it, read it, whatever, and it won't affect n,
the int at location 5100.

But what if we want to have f() modify the value and then
have that new value be available in main()?  C does this by
passing the variable "by reference".

int n;

        n = 151;

int *x;
        printf("%d.\n", *x);
        *x = 451;

Pass the _address_ of n, and declare x as a _pointer_ to int.
Actually, this is still passing by value, but the value being
passed is the address, not the number.

 0x5100 | 151|  n is an integer
 0x5104 |5100|  x is a pointer to int

Now if f() when we make use of *x, we are referring to the
value at location 5100.  This is the location of n.
After the assignment "*x = 451;", this is what we have:

 0x5100 | 451|  n is an integer
 0x5104 |5100|  x is a pointer to int

x still points to location 5100, but we have changed the value
of the object at that location.

Well, those are the basics.
You mentioned things like "*x=**p++" being ugly and unreadable.
Well, yeah, but here is a diagram that may help:

        |----|  here is a word in memory with initial value 0. 
 0x5100 |   0|  no variable name
 0x5104 |  12|  here is a value, a word in memory.  no variable name.
 0x5108 |5104|  Here is an int pointer, pointing at the previous word.
 0x511c |5108|  here is p, a pointer to int pointer.
 0x5120 |5100|  here is x, a pointer.  guess where it's pointing.

First let's see what p and x were declared as:
int *x;    /* pointer to int */
int **p;   /* pointer to pointer.  
              The subordinate pointer is a pointer to int.*/

You should know now what "*x" means.  It means, "the value of location 5100."
And you know what "*p" means, "the value of location 5108".
Now that value is another address!  Okay, let's dereference that
address: "**p" and we find (by the declaration) an int.

Now "*x = **p" looks like, "this int at 5100 gets the value of
that int at 5104."

And what does "**p++" mean?  Well, ++ binds tighter than *, so this
is equivalent to:  *( *( p++ ) )
Or, "pointer to pointer to int, and by the way, after we're done,
p has been incremented.  But we looked where it was pointing
before it got incremented, so we don't care.  Let the next statement
worry about it."

This content is copyright 2012 by Bill Karwin.  I'll share it under the terms of the Creative Commons License, Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Don't Put the Cart Before the Horse

April 2nd I made this undiplomatic statement (funny how Twitter practically encourages being provocative):

#ZF 2.0 is a great example of second-system syndrome.
Matthew Weier O'Phinney and I have a good working relationship. I think his work on the Zend Framework project has been amazing, both from a technology perspective and a marketing perspective. 
Matthew and Bill
So when Matthew asked me to clarify my Tweet, I was happy to reply, in the spirit of constructive criticism. These thoughts apply to many projects--not just ZF--so I thought they would be of general interest. Here's the content of my reply:

When I've reviewed project proposals or business plans, one thing I often advise people is that you can't describe the value of a project in terms of how you implemented it. Users don't want to hear about how you used XML, or dependency injection, or unit tests, or agile methodology, or whatever. They want to hear what they can do with this product.

After reading the roadmap for ZF 2.0, I observed that a great majority of the planned changes are refactoring and internal architectural changes. These are worthwhile things to do, but the roadmap says very little about the feature set, or the value to users.

What I'm saying is that implementation does not drive requirements. That's putting the cart before the horse.

I admit that for a developer framework, this line is more blurry than in other products. Your users do care about the architecture more than they would for a traditional application. But that still doesn't account for the emphasis on implementation changes in the roadmap, and the lack of specific feature objectives.

For instance, some goals for the controller are described in a list of four bullet items: lightweight, flexible, easy to extend, and easy to create and use custom implementations (which sounds close to easy to extend). Then it jumps right into implementation plans.

So how flexible does it need to be, and in what usage scenarios? What does lightweight mean? How will you know when it's lightweight? Are there benchmark goals you're hoping to meet?

Another example is namespacing. Yes, using namespaces allows you to use shorter class names. Is that the bottleneck for users of ZF 1.x? Do you need to create a namespace for every single level of the ZF tree to solve this? Would that be the best solution to the difficulties of using ZF 1.x?

The point is that the way to decide on a given implementation is to evaluate it against a set of requirements. You haven't defined the requirements, or else you've defined the requirements in terms of a desired implementation.

My view is that requirements and implementation are decoupled; a specific implementation should never be treated as one of the requirements, only a means of satisfying the requirements.

Bill Karwin

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Sql Injection Slides Posted

I gave a presentation today at the MySQL Conference & Expo 2010, titled SQL Injection Myths and Fallacies. Thanks to everyone who came to my talk! I appreciate your interest in learning to develop more secure applications. SQL Injection is a serious threat to web applications, and it's only going to get worse. It's incumbent on you as software developers to learn how to write secure code!

My slides are now online in two places: on the MySQL Conference website, and at

I also handed out cards for a 20% discount on my upcoming book, SQL Antipatterns. One chapter in my book is devoted to SQL Injection risks and methods for defending against them. You can pre-order the hardcopy book and receive it as soon as it ships. You can also get the downloadable beta e-book right away, and receive an update when the editing is done.

I left a stack of the leftover discount cards on the collateral table in the hallway. If you didn't get one, you'll have another chance when I talk at the PHP TEK-X conference in Chicago in May!