How HealthSherpa's Developers Harnessed Heroku for Unprecedented Scale

In the world of health insurance, HealthSherpa stands out. Not just for its mission to make health coverage accessible to as many people as possible, but also for its ability to manage periods of massive enrollment spikes. Their integrated health insurance marketplace enables agents, consumers, and carriers to enroll millions of people in federally facilitated US health insurance coverage each year.

HealthSherpa anticipated a highly unpredictable workload with massive usage spikes during the upcoming Open Enrollment Period.The engineering team began to strategize on how to maintain uninterrupted service throughout the high-demand, seasonal enrollment surge.

Our business was growing rapidly, and we needed confidence that our infrastructure could survive the expected and unexpected traffic growth, all while being extremely easy to use and operate day-to-day Joseph Gefroh, VP of Product and Engineering, HealthSherpa

Anticipating and Planning for Massive Seasonal Scale

The enrollment momentum showcased HealthSherpa's growing impact on health insurance services, but the increasing demand also presented new engineering challenges. Their current traffic volume had already maxed out their database's vertical scaling. They weren’t confident it could handle the triple-digit traffic growth anticipated during peak enrollment. After working on optimizations at the application code level, the team still wanted the confidence that came with having additional capacity available at the infrastructure level.

HealthSherpa stats

Unexpected growth at the start of Open Enrollment prompted a reassessment of HealthSherpa's scaling capacity against substantially higher anticipated peak week traffic levels.

Given our unexpected level of growth early on in the Open Enrollment Period, our team redoubled efforts, scaling our infrastructure to match HealthSherpa's rising enrollment success. Lisa Gumerman, Director of Engineering, HealthSherpa

As Heroku Enterprise customers, HealthSherpa sought tailored support to refine their handling of increased load demands. Leveraging their current Heroku Postgres Shield-9 setup, they needed an even more robust database solution capable of efficiently managing a dramatic surge in connections.

Harnessing Heroku’s Capabilities for Scaling

The HealthSherpa team quickly connected with the Heroku Premier Support team to address additional optimizations. The Heroku team provided guidance and solutions to ensure HealthSherpa’s app continued to run smoothly through their anticipated peak traffic volume.

Strategic Service Collaboration

Heroku's support offered comprehensive guidance throughout the scaling process from multiple Heroku disciplines. By working with their dedicated Heroku Technical Account Manager, HealthSherpa had direct access to Heroku's data specialists, engineering experts, Customer Solutions Architects, and more. This collaboration not only ensured informed decision-making, but also facilitated custom configurations to meet the demands of their seasonal traffic spike.

Heroku's support was not just about scaling; it was about understanding our unique load needs and closely partnering with us to find custom solutions. Joseph Gefroh, VP of Product and Engineering at HealthSherpa.

Database Evolution and Architectural Shift

After understanding HealthSherpa’s goals, Heroku aligned HealthSherpa's scaling challenges with initiatives on the Data Product Roadmap. This foundation enabled Heroku to proactively develop and deploy a tailored, upgraded solution to facilitate HealthSherpa's growth.

While not yet publicly available at the time, the Heroku team saw that a new database tier they were developing, Heroku Postgres Shield-10, could make a huge difference towards meeting HealthSherpa’s challenges. They worked with HealthSherpa to integrate the new tier into their platform, which doubled their database’s memory to 1TB. This upgrade was more than just an increase in capacity; it was a strategic improvement designed to efficiently balance resources and maintain consistent high performance during periods of intense demand.

Simultaneously, the two teams collaborated to initiate a paradigm shift in database connection management. Heroku's Customer Solutions Architect team spearheaded this transformation, guiding HealthSherpa to transition from server-side to client-side connection pooling. This shift was strategic and significant, moving the bottleneck from the database to the more scalable dynos. The introduction of client-side pgbouncer was pivotal in this transition. This newly adopted architecture wasn't just about managing connections more efficiently; it was about reshaping the application's entire scalability framework.

The guided move to client-side pooling, complemented by the robust capabilities of Shield-10, meant that HealthSherpa could confidently handle the surge without straining their infrastructure.

HealthSherpa Traffic Levels

Traffic levels more than double at the season's start, then double again during peak week.

Partnering with Heroku provided crucial insights that streamlined our operations and solidified our strategy. Their validation heightened our confidence, and we felt prepared as enrollment volumes began to rise. Jeff Gladchun, Senior Engineering Manager, HealthSherpa

Amplifying Impact with Heroku's Scalable Platform

As the Open Enrollment Period began to ramp up, HealthSherpa's preparations faced the real-world test. Could their improvements stand up to the surge of users counting on HealthSherpa to connect them to vital health services?

The outcome exceeded the team’s initial expectations. HealthSherpa efficiently processed over 1200 requests and 30,000 queries per second, facilitating successful enrollments for over 6.6 million individuals. This represented an over tenfold spike in demand, marking a historic peak in system load.

Remarkably, amidst this surge, system responsiveness remained impressive. With average latency reduced by over 90% from prior years to a mere 137 milliseconds, it ensured streamlined enrollment experiences across all user types.

But the real victory was the peace of mind the team experienced. Heroku not only empowered HealthSherpa to manage the spike efficiently, but also significantly improved the team's productivity and focus. With Heroku's robust infrastructure absorbing the complexities of scaling, HealthSherpa's team could focus on what they do best—connecting individuals to essential health coverage.

The collaboration with Heroku Support coupled with increased capacity transformed what traditionally was our most hectic period into a relatively calm day. It wasn't just about handling the volume; it was about doing so with such stability that our busiest day felt like business as usual. Lisa Gumerman, Director of Engineering, HealthSherpa

Profound Impact

At its peak performance, HealthSherpa enrolled an average of 10 individuals per second in affordable health coverage. According to research, every 1,587 enrollments in Affordable Care Act Health Insurance correlates to one life saved. HealthSherpa enrolled 6.6 million individuals and families into Affordable Care Act Health Insurance during the 2024 open Enrollment Period, making up 40% of the total enrollments completed through the Federally Facilitated Marketplace. This contribution translates to potentially saving more than 4,100 lives, highlighting HealthSherpa's significant impact on public health.The collaboration with Heroku ensured flawless management of the highest traffic volume in HealthSherpa's history, securing essential healthcare for millions with zero downtime.

Heroku can handle the scale and offers excellent support. Our partnership significantly contributed to our strategy's success. With our 100% annual traffic growth, Heroku has consistently matched our pace, providing invaluable support. Joseph Gefroh, VP of Product and Engineering, HealthSherpa

Transform Challenges into Success with Heroku

HealthSherpa's collaboration with Heroku showcases the power of a strategic partnership, technical excellence, and a shared commitment to making healthcare accessible. If you're looking to scale your operations without the stress of infrastructure management, explore how Heroku can transform your challenges into success stories.

Explore Further:

  • Master app building, deployment, and management with Heroku's comprehensive documentation. Dive in →
  • Navigate the complexities of high-compliance app development with Heroku Shield, catering to sectors like healthcare and finance. Discover how →
  • Understand why Heroku is the choice for developers and businesses for app deployment and scalability. Explore the reasons →
  • Curious to explore what Heroku has to offer? Get started today →

If you have any thoughts or suggestions on future reliability improvements we can make, check out our public roadmap on GitHub and submit an issue!