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Friday, 19 July, 2002, 12:36 GMT 13:36 UK
Census website still offline
Census website, still out of action
The trouble-plagued 1901 census website just can't get IT right. The site is still offline, more than six months after it had to be pulled from service.

When the Public Records Office pulled the plug on its 1901 census website soon after it launched on 2 January, net users were reassured that it would be back online in a week.

Although available fitfully throughout January, the site came down in February for a fortnight for re-engineering. That has since stretched to six months, and the PRO cannot be certain when the site will once again be searchable.

This has caused much frustration to our customers, frustration we share

Apology on 1901 census website
On its website, the PRO apologises for the drawn-out delays and explains that both it and QinetiQ Ltd, the firm responsible for the technical aspects of the service, have carried out tests to make sure the rebuilt site can cope with demand.

A QuinetiQ spokesman told BBC News Online that simulated tests show the system is robust enough to cope with one million users in an hour - about the level that caused the original to crash repeatedly.

"We're now doing final compatiblity tests, but the site will remain down until we're 100% happy that it can deliver," he says, adding that the cost of the delay will be borne by his company, not the taxpayer.

Yet net users do not hold out much hope of using the site any time soon. On a genealogy newsgroup, one user points out that the PRO's statement has not changed significantly since late February, other than to change the date at fortnightly intervals.

Unexpected demand

In the short time the site was live, it was getting up to 30 million hits a day as people tried repeatedly to access the service.

As it had been designed to cope with about one million hits a day, the site struggled to cope with the crowds who wanted to search the archive for mentions of relatives, or the street or house they live in.

Census record
The entry of cricket legend WG Grace
BT, which looks after the computers that hold the 1901 census, was forced to limit the numbers that could reach the site for fear that such heavy traffic would clog its network and affect visitors to every other site under its auspices.

It is the latest in a string of hitches plaguing the government's internet projects.

The Child Support Agency's new system, due to be ready last April, has yet to go live; and in 2000 the Inland Revenue self-assessment website had to be taken offline after technical errors were discovered a month after it launched.

Months of tinkering

As well as simplifying the information on each page of the 1901 census site to make it smaller, server capacity has been increased and firewalls have been set up to protect both the census archive and other sites.

Charlie Chaplin
Chaplin: "Music hall artiste" in 1901 census
Once testing of the 1901 census site is complete, the PRO plans trial runs at designated service centres in England and Wales. If the service holds up, only then will it go live.

Can't wait? Best head for the Public Records Office in Kew, west London, where microfilm copies of the 1901 census are available. Libraries and record centres dotted around the country also have microfilm copies of the 1901 returns for the local area.

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