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Digital queues avert COVID-19 vaccine registration crashes

Q&A with Cloudflare co-founder and CEO Matthew Prince on how digital waiting rooms can help public health agencies register their constituents for COVID-19 vaccinations.

When COVID-19 vaccine registration sites opened, the flood of people trying to make appointments caused a number of state government websites to crash.

Cloudflare, known for DDoS web security and content distribution network services, hosts digital waiting room technologies, which most consumers experience when a site is about to open up sales for high-demand events. These waiting rooms hold the queue and deliver buyers to the sites at a volume they can handle -- and prevent the sites from crashing.

In this Q&A, Cloudflare co-founder and CEO Matthew Prince shares how this technology can be applied to COVID-19 vaccine registration sites. The company recently developed Project Fair Shot, a service free to cash-strapped public health agencies, as well as state and local governments, to set up digital waiting rooms to keep vaccine registration sites online and to improve constituent experience.

What was the genesis of Project Fair Shot?

Matthew Prince: Our Austin, Texas, Emerging Technology and Incubation team is sort of our skunk works, about 10% of our R&D effort. Its job is to dream up new things we think customers will be asking for 18 months from now. Dane Knecht runs that team. Dane's wife Kate was trying to get her parents registered to get vaccinated, they met the criteria Texas had in place. The Texas registration website platform kept failing. It was that thundering herd problem where the minute they open it up, thousands and thousands of people try to register at the same time. That caused the back end not be able to accept connections and crash. Not only was she not able to register, but no one was able to register.

Cloudflare CEO Matthew PrinceMatthew Prince

This isn't a unique problem. There are municipalities, governments, hospitals, clinics and pharmacies around the world trying to figure out how to equitably distribute vaccines, and their sites are falling over. Kate said to her husband, Dane, 'Why doesn't Cloudflare do something about this? Isn't this exactly in your wheelhouse, around performance, security and reliability?' Dane thought, 'Maybe there is something that we can do about that.' In a little less than two weeks, he and a small group of engineers built an application on Cloudflare Workers, our edge computing platform, that is designed to scale not literally infinitely but pretty darn close.

The system allows anyone who has a site to configure it to basically trickle in the [number] of visitors the site can actually handle. If there are more visitors than the site can handle, it will give an estimate for how long it will take before your turn in the queue. And it can scale across the entire Cloudflare network, so it could scale to hundreds of millions of simultaneous users if need be.

Hundreds of organizations from around the world have reached out to be a part of it. We're onboarding them as quickly as we can.
Matthew PrinceCo-founder and CEO, Cloudflare

The digital waiting room, like we see when rock bands go on tour and the tickets go on sale.

Prince: There are a lot of commercial applications for it. Our customers use it for things like selling limited edition shoes or distributing concert tickets. What the world really needs it most for right now was exactly what the engineering team is sort of set up to build -- a way to manage the queues for vaccine websites, along with our anti-bot technology and other things that just make sense.

Hundreds of organizations from around the world have reached out to be a part of it. We're onboarding them as quickly as we can, and we've had about 70 people on our team volunteer in their spare time to help onboard these organizations and get them up and running as quickly as possible. We, as a team, are incredibly proud that we could play a small role in what is one of the most complicated logistics operations in human history.

Have you run into botnet issues on vaccine registration sites? Or is that more of a theoretical threat?

Prince: Not that I know of. We've seen some news reports that people are trying to poach vaccine appointments, but my hunch is that's more sensational than real. In most of these cases, to register, you have to provide an identity that has to be verified when you're getting the vaccine. So, it's not quite like a concert, where you just present a ticket and get in. There's more of an ID process here. But we do want to make sure that bots are not a problem, so we included bot management, which is able to very effectively identify legitimate traffic versus bot traffic -- and screen it out.

It's early days, but what has the traffic looked like on vaccine registration sites?

Prince: We've seen places where 100,000 people are in the queue, and our system has managed it -- what's really impressive is that we've been able to have the average wait time for somebody from when they get in the queue to when they are actually allowed to register for that to be less than 10 minutes. That compares favorably to stories we've heard where people had to refresh multiple times, they got all the way through the process and the site crashed.

Many of our readers are just beginning to build technology stacks to support digital customer experience. How should digital waiting rooms figure into CX?

Prince: Start with: If you're hacked, that's one of the worst marketing days of your life. It affects trust. And if your site is offline, then it doesn't matter how clever your copy or your campaign is -- you're not accessible.

If your site is not fast, then customers will leave, and increasingly, search engines punish you. Whenever somebody is marketing a new shoe that's going to have a million people trying to buy it -- or anything else -- we work with companies, organizations and marketers to make sure they're fast, reliable and effective, wherever your customers are on the planet.

Project Fair Shot and vaccine registration aside, how has the pandemic affected your business?

Prince: There were things that were really challenging. We had to transition from a work-from-office culture to a remote-work culture.

We also saw unprecedented demand, as internet use nearly doubled globally. At one level, that sounds like a good thing. But there was a lot of infrastructure that we had to build to make that happen. And we had to do it at a time when we weren't always able to get servers to build out our network and deploy things around the world.

The superheroes in this crisis are the medical professionals on the front lines taking care of the sick. That and the scientists who pretty miraculously found a vaccine as quickly as they have, and they're looking for other treatments for this horrible disease. Their sort of faithful sidekick in it all has been the internet. I keep thinking, how much worse this crisis would have been had it happened 10 years ago? We didn't know we were doing it, but over the last 10 years we were getting the internet ready for what it's gone through over the last 10 months.

This Q&A has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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