Discussion and articles specifically about NHS ePortfolio
It has come to our attention that a number of users, instead of clicking a bookmark to the site or typing https://www.nhseportfolios.org into the address bar of their browser, access our site by searching for terms such as “NHS ePortfolio” in search engines such as Google or Bing, and then clicking links in the search results page these sites choose to provide. When navigating to the site in this way, the results page provided by these third party sites can often include links to alternate instances of our main site in which users login credentials do not work, but which look very similar to our main site, causing confusion/frustration to users. We use these sties for supporting the ePortfolio, they are used for training, pre-release testing and many other import processes. (Please note, the search results vary on a per user basis and are not consistent in their content).
This situation arose previously, in May/June 2013, when Google substantially changed the algorithm used to prioritise search results. These alternate sites can be easily identified as they have different addresses (e.g. http://qa.nhseportfolios.org) which will appear in the address bar of the browser when accessing the site and because all but one of the alternate sites now contain the following information message on the homepage: This is not the main NHS ePortfolio site – you may have reached this site by mistake. You are viewing xxx.nhseportfolios.org, were you looking for www.nhseportfolios.org? Whilst the contents of the results pages in the search engines are not controlled by NES, we have contacted the two major global search engines – Google and Bing – to remove links to alternate instances of our site to reduce this possible source of confusion.
We are currently investigating the options available to us to ensure that the non-inclusion of alternative sites is made permanent. In the interim, please ensure that you and your trainees are visiting the main site at the following address: https://www.nhseportfolios.org If you continue to experience login issues, please first confirm that you are visiting https://www.nhseportfolios.org and, if problems persist, please provide a full-screen screen grab where possible to assign with identifying the issue.
We are constantly working to make sure the ePortfolio is accessible and usable in the wide range of environments in which it is used. We have received feedback on the speed of some pages in the application from a small percentage of users and we are keen to address this. We hope the information below is helpful but please get in touch if you have further feedback.
The NHS ePortfolio is a complex web site that delivers information (content) to a wide range of roles within multiple ePortfolio versions. The content is derived from data accessed from an ever-growing database. Page load times can depend on the complexity of the task that page must perform and on the source, quantity and complexity of the data needed to fulfil that task. Load times can also be affected by overall site activity, be it numbers of concurrent users or by the commonly requested tasks in operation at that time. Lastly, national and local network speeds can limit pages loads as can the age, type and specification of the computer being used to display the web page.
The aim of this short article is to discuss NHS ePortfolio site performance and why, though the majority of pages load quickly, some pages can take rather longer to load.
What happens when you access NHS ePortfolio?
When you log into your ePortfolio account, your web browser requests access to the ePortfolio software that is installed in web servers that return the appropriate content. The software consists of code that determines what should be sent back and what it should look like (i.e. how it renders in a web page in your browser). Behind the code on the server is a database that stores all the information about who you are, what access rights you have, which are your forms and curricula, posts, training programmes, supervisors, and how these items are inter-related. So, for any web page to be delivered to your browser the software must process a series of database “queries” in order to construct the page that is returned to you.
Some pages are more complex to display, such as a Summary Overview, Curriculum or Review of Evidence page. This is because database queries that are performed when requesting these pages search very large data sets. A significant part of the ePortfolio involves accessing web pages that must deliver data derived from several complicated data requests, all of which will take time to process on the server.
Patterns of activity
There are periods of time throughout the year when activity increases and so pressure on the web server increases too. Activity that makes the web server work harder isn’t necessarily due to increased numbers of visitors or by increased numbers of page views (i.e. the number of pages being processed and delivered to the user’s browser). Some pages such as the Form Summary Overview or Curriculum Overview will require higher levels of processing than a ticket request page. So, if you have several hundred trainees checking their Form Summary page (e.g. as they prepare for ARCP) the servers are all working harder to search and display the data.
The graph in the figure below shows how site usage (as page views) increases in the run up to post rotation changeover as trainees rush to complete assessments & other forms before moving on. A particularly busy period is seen during May and June whilst ARCPs are in progress. While the number of people during this time starts to decline the load on the server remains high as ARCP Reviewers access particularly complex, data heavy pages.
What affects how long it takes for a page to appear?
The time it takes for a page to appear fully loaded on your web browser after you have clicked a link or menu button can be influenced by a number of factors:
- How much work the server has to do to generate the page (by the software and the database) before sending it back
- How big (in terms of kilobytes) is the page being returned to you
- How fast is the network connection between the client and server, and how much competition for resources (known as contention) is encountered by users of that connection.
- How quickly can the browser on the client computer process the HTML and scripts locally to fully render the page
Is ePortfolio slow?
It is difficult, if not impossible, to obtain bench mark values with which to compare ePortfolio performance against. Which pages do you compare? Which sites might you compare performance with?
An indication of global page load times by country, industry “vertical” and other interesting web statistics can be found at http://brandongaille.com/acceptable-web-page-load-times-by-country-and-industry/ or view the info-graphic from this site by clicking this thumbnail (opens in a new window):
What we are able to see from analytics data is that while 17% of pages take less than 1 second to load, 36% of ePortfolio pages take between 1 and 2 seconds and a quarter of page loads take longer than 7 seconds (see the graph below).
The slower page load times will be a result of specific pages that are more difficult to generate and serve rather than just pages simply running slowly.
Known complex pages include (in no specific order):
- Trainee home page
- Supervisor’s selected trainee home page
- Foundation TAB summary page
- Trainee assessments page
- Trainee curriculum page
In each case these are pages that require a significant amount of data access and processing before being delivered to your browser.
What are we doing to improve performance?
The work to improve site performance is a constant and ongoing process. An obvious source of potential improvement can be found by upgrading the server hardware, i.e. multiple load-balanced servers in a virtual machine environment. In autumn 2012 we migrated to a virtual private cloud environment with exactly this setup, and as a result saw significant improvements in performance. However, this alone will not necessarily solve all speed issues and there are cost limitations of further increasing server power.
Much of the work in improving site speed involves looking at the software and database. Work is currently focussing on analysis of the software to find more efficient ways of achieving the same output, removing redundant or extraneous functionality, identifying and eliminating database bottlenecks. More effective and efficient database architecture and design can also lead to better data access rates by the software. Already we have seen improved service during periods of peak activity during ARCP in May and June 2013 as compared to the same period in 2012.
We have made good progress over the previous 2 years to provide an increasingly stable and speedy web application. We still have work to do to make the NHS ePortfolio more responsive and deliver content more efficiently. While this process of improvement is an ongoing task we have to accept there are limitations in resources in terms of hardware and in terms of technical staff needed to find, develop and implement changes.
Keep up with updates and developments by following us on Twitter: @neseportfolio
Do you have any comments you’d like make? Use the comments box below to voice your opinion or give us any feedback.
ePortfolio will be available as usual over the festive period and there is no scheduled downtime between 18th December and 6th January.
NES public holidays are 25th December, 26th December, 1st January & 2nd January.
We wish you a happy festive period.
During the summer the NHS ePortfolio experiences a significant increase in the level of usage and activity in the lead up and during the ARCP process for Foundation and Specialty trainees.
As shown in the Figure 1 below, the number of page loads due to extensive user activity peaks towards the end of May with 3.1 million page views across the entire ePortfolio. Over half of these are specifically Foundation ePortfolio users.
Of interest is the average page load times that peaks in mid-June. This is particularly marked in Foundation-specific data and can be accounted for by the change in the type of pages being accessed during June compared to May. During ARCP reviews the server will be generating a higher proportion of complex report pages that require the server to have to process more data.
Figure 1. Page views (blue lines) and average page load time (red line) for all users (a) and just Foundation Users (b)
The performance of the server (Figure 2) showed spikes in the data transfer rate (blue lines) and measured overall server response time (elapsed time, red lines) with a peak coinciding with the date of highest usage (22nd May). Greater daily spikes are seen seen during June while transfer rates flatten from the end of May onwards. The occasional transfer rate troughs coincide with scheduled downtime for software updates. Users who may have experienced delays in opening pages or submitting forms during May and June may have been subject to network issues related to local IT systems or infrastructure that we can’t detect or influence.
Figure 2. Server performance during May and June 2013: data transfer rate (blue lines) and overall server response time (red lines)
Overall, there was no reported or detected performance problems with the ePortfolio that could be attributed to high levels of general activity (as seen prior to ARCP) or by high levels of complex processing activity (as seen during ARCPs). This can for the most part be attributed to recently implemented server architecture that can be “powered up” during peak times but also to ongoing efforts by the development team to identify and remove software and data “bottle necks”.
NES ePortfolio : Outcome of 1st Phase : Ownership and Management of NES ePortfolio
“In June we announced our intention to undertake a review of the ownership and management of the NES
eP1. We decided to undertake this review in recognition of the rapid growth of the eP, and concerns that
opportunities for its further development might be constrained due to the financial and governance
arrangements which apply to NES as a Special Health Board.
“We have completed the first phase of our review and have undertaken an option appraisal based on the
three options we identified in our paper;
- Option1 – Do Nothing
- Option 2 – Further development of eP within NES
- Option 3 – Joint venture between NES and a third party.
“By our deadline for receipt of initial proposals we received 7 submissions from third parties to develop a
joint venture with NES. The submissions received were generally all of a high quality and followed a number
of constructive meetings with nearly all of the third parties who submitted proposals. The review project
team also developed Option 2 to support the further development of eP within NES.
“The outcome of the first phase of the review has been a decision by NES to continue to manage the
development of the eP in-house. In summary, we concluded that meeting the future needs of trainees,
students and other eP stakeholders was best protected by retaining the eP within NES. However, the review
also high-lighted that there were aspects of the future development of the eP which NES was not best
placed to manage and we may consider partnership arrangements in due course to address these issues
“We are very pleased that ePortfolio will remain within NES (Option 2) and a Short life Working Group
consisting of a number of senior managers is being assembled to develop a sustainable plan that will ensure
ePortfolio continues to evolve and adapt to meet the needs of healthcare staff. [Continued..]