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Concerns Grow That COVID-19 Could Take Down the Internet

By Jack M. Germain
Mar 24, 2020 12:13 PM PT
the coronavirus pandemic is straining the internet's capabilities

It may not be a question of if but when the Internet will reach the breaking point under the strain of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Internet is fast becoming a potential victim of the coronavirus assault. With an estimated billion people staying home, remote working, or just watching shows online all day, concerns are mounting that the Internet will break under the strain.

Add to this burden the huge hordes of students learning online and everybody streaming videos. All of these ongoing uses justify worries about the Internet's health.

"One of our greatest concerns about the burden that the pandemic is inflicting on Internet infrastructure is that things could come to a crashing halt. Internet brownouts could impact users globally," said Niraj Tolia, CEO of Kasten.

This will not just increase social isolation and impact mental health. It also will increase the load on national services that support people in this time of need, he told the E-Commerce Times.

Mitigating Doom and Gloom

System-wide there should be enough fiber service providers can turn on and content caches they can deploy for heavy bandwidth users such as streaming services. Other infrastructure improvements can ensure there will not be any sustained issues, according to Tolia.

"The question that remains is how quickly can this happen, since it too will rely on resources -- like people, technology and time -- that have been impacted by the coronavirus too. These activities should be treated as essential services, though," he maintained.

Fortunately, encoding and infrastructure delivery have been in rapid transformation with the adoption of cloud-native and adaptive bit rate (ABR) technologies. This move to software-centric architectures brings the flexibility of using capacity where available, for example in public clouds like AWS or GCP, instead of being tied to racking and stacking hardware in data centers, Tolia explained.

"This will prove to be beneficial as companies will increasingly rely on agile environments and services that can only be achieved through cloud-native," he said.

This also brings challenges with data portability and moving cloud-native applications and workloads. Businesses must have the right Dev and IT and SecOps processes, plus the right backup and disaster-recovery capabilities in place. Otherwise, the continuity of IT operations, development practices and security measures that ensure resilient and scalable infrastructure will be at risk, Tolia added.

Beware of Short-sighted Responses

One of the greatest concerns about preserving the Internet is keeping the network up and running, said Chiara Regale, vice president of product management at Forward Networks.

The tech giants are trying to adopt band-aid solutions to continue services with minimal impact on the service level agreements, or SLAs, she told the E-Commerce Times.

"Higher demand and traffic may increase the likelihood of network choke points, misbehavior and outages, translating into lower SLAs. Networks will be saturated, and service will get dropped for some users," she warned.

Businesses, the economy, and consumers ordered to shelter in place will suffer if networks fail. Businesses must grab the opportunity to adapt.

For instance, businesses can adapt to a new way of operating that will rely more on remote resources, appropriate infrastructure, and network security measures. Certain businesses will suffer and some will thrive, depending on how fast they will be able to change, Regale observed.

"If businesses and telco providers react with appropriate measures, consumers will still be offered services but perhaps at lower quality and intermittently," she said.

Testing the Data Flow

The telecom infrastructure risk is far from critical, in the view of some industry insiders. However, some of the largest networks and video streaming providers outside the U.S. are taking steps to lessen traffic volume and unthrottled access to the Internet. Those reactions raise questions about the health of the Internet elsewhere.

For example, content providers in Europe, Asia and India are taking steps to mitigate any potential Internet crashing. Netflix, Google, Apple and Amazon have begun to restrict HD video streaming to reduce data usage in Europe.

Video-streaming services account for more than 60 percent of global Internet traffic, based on reports.

Netflix is reducing bit rates across all its streams in Europe for 30 days, a Netflix spokesperson said. Netflix comprises 12 percent of online bandwidth around the world.

Google subsidiary YouTube is managing an estimated 1 billion hours of content viewed every day. Google temporarily reduced all YouTube video streaming in the EU to standard definition by default.

Amazon has taken similar measures with its Prime Video service to ensure it can handle the increased demand.

Facebook is reducing video streaming quality in Europe for Facebook and Instagram.

Disney plans to lower bandwidth utilization for Disney+ by at least 25 percent.

Tracking Internet Surges

The burden the pandemic is inflicting on the Internet infrastructure is highlighted in a report from Plume. Data that Plume has published from the Plume Cloud -- the company manages 650 million devices across 14 million households -- shows the recent increase in devices connected at home during working hours.

Based on its data, weekday traffic to phones and computers has been increasing rapidly, by 46 percent and 56 percent respectively, as the number of people working from home has increased, Plume observed.

However, total usage of traffic in the home is highly dominated by entertainment-focused devices (including TVs, set top boxes, and gaming consoles). Their usage increased by 13 percent and 6 percent on weekdays and weekends respectively. The date range used to calculate the data was Jan. 29 to March 17.

Based on the information already collected, Plume has seen a significant increase in the number of devices connecting to home WiFi networks during work hours.

This information already is helping ISPs plan for additional loads on their network, said Plume spokesperson Erin Freeley.

Further, it's providing valuable insights into the speed at which workers in the U.S. are moving to home working, she told the E-commerce Times.

Alarming Figures

Plume's data visualization shows the percentage of computers and smartphones in households connected to the Internet between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. (local time), across fourteen U.S. cities, as well as the percentage change each day when compared to baseline levels prior to February. The report shows that by the end of the day on March 20, the number of devices connected to home WiFi networks increased by the following percentages:

+98.5 percent in San Francisco and the Bay Area
+98.5 percent in San Diego
+86.7 percent in Denver
+86.4 percent in Austin
+79 percent in Philadelphia
+72.2 percent in New York
The figures take into account desktop and laptop computers, as well as smartphones connected to the network for more than six hours during the workday in those cities.

Based on its data, weekday traffic to phones and computers has been increasing rapidly, Plume observed.

Data Tunnels Gaining Traffic Too

Workers sent home, whether to continue working remotely or simply to shelter in place, are contributing to the approaching data bottleneck, suggested Jan Youngren, cybersecurity researcher and expert at VPNpro.

VPNpro checked how popular the search term "VPN" (virtual private network) was in Google Trends during the last 14 days (March 7-20). Then researchers compared its growth in different countries with the previous period (Feb. 22-March 6). As expected, the highest growth in popularity was in European countries.

"VPNpro.com researchers report that changes in VPN usage are real. Of nine major VPN companies that responded to our questions, eight have confirmed a significant increase in usage, sales, or both," Youngren told the E-Commerce Times.

The global increase in VPN usage varies between 0 percent and 50 percent in recent weeks, but some of the numbers in specific countries are staggering.

"The U.S. and Canada were almost even, with 36 percent and 35 percent growth, respectively," said Youngren.

Work-at-Home Security Tunnel Imperative

With a greater focus on keeping the Internet running, heightened concerns about data security might be ignored. For years engineers have struggled to deploy and scale traditional security systems to meet cloud-scale demands. The exponential increase in data generated by our new all-remote reality is set to significantly exacerbate existing issues, warned Jack Naglieri, CEO of Panther.

"The move to an all-remote workforce, all the time, is placing additional strain on security teams already stretched thin by the rapid proliferation of cloud computing and its ever-increasing attack surface area," he told the E-Commerce Times. "Now that there is more noise in the signal, so to speak, I suspect we're going to see a material increase in targeted hacking attempts."

Security is one the major concerns of Jacob Ansari, senior manager at Schellman & Company.

One issue likely to bubble up to the surface relatively soon is e-commerce entities kicking the can of patches and security fixes down the road -- and forgoing other maintenance needs -- in favor of immediate availability and stability, he said.

"If this goes too far, many sites will have significant security issues and require substantial maintenance, downtime and re-engineering. A security incident in the midst of this will add considerable harm to struggling businesses and worried consumers, and it does not need to happen," Ansari told the E-Commerce Times.

New VPN Security

Intact on Tuesday launched ReAccess and PowerLine, solutions that will provide specialized workforces -- i.e., the government, healthcare, education and enterprise sectors -- with a way to establish a work-from-home routine that previously was not possible.

ReAccess addresses remote home workers' concerns with VPNs, those with limited Internet bandwidth, and security concerns from a huge spike in cyberattacks due to Internet vulnerabilities.

ReAccess is a Microsoft-compliant, government-grade, cyber-hardened, fully automated application that resides at the network edge and provides a low-code-no-code conversion of Access, other databases, and new applications to a fully compliant Cosmos DB in the Azure cloud.

Both solutions will help enterprise users deal with the strain on the Internet system because of the exponential growth in the number of people working from home, said Richard Kilsby, non-executive chairman at Intact.

"Residential broadband suppliers, until now, seem to be coping with the additional strain and the move from evening peak to daytime. However, the greatest concern is for the bandwidth of the corporations themselves," he told the E-Commerce Times.

Pushing the Data Limits

Most commercial businesses are set up to deal with 10 percent of the workforce working from home and government departments less than 1 percent. The sudden change to near 100 percent of the workforce remote-working puts incredible strain on the limited VPN terminals available, explained Kilsby.

They simply can not reach the applications they need in order to do their day-to-day jobs. Breaks in data consistency are causing slowdowns in service or stopping them altogether, he added.

That causes data inconsistency. If workers are unable to reach their vital systems, the continuity of the business will break down, as people are then not billed, suppliers don't get paid, and business critical calculations do not add up. This leaves businesses with no choice other then to slow services drastically or stop them altogether.

"The gravest consequence is when this happens to organizations we all truly depend on -- such as power, water, emergency services and food. It is vital business continuity is not disrupted," Kilsby said.

Business or Entertainment: An Ongoing Debate

More people at home could mean an uptick in subscriber numbers for streaming platforms. Or it could mean that streaming companies in fact will lose international subscribers and will not necessarily generate higher revenues.

More is at play than any added revenue streaming services may garner with increased viewing hours, according to Lars Larsson, CEO of Varnish Software.

Users are billed per month rather than by usage or consumption patterns, he noted.

"Whether or not streaming companies stand to make more money from social distancing and 'stay at home' policies, let's not forget the potential technological repercussions of more sustained activity from consumers on these platforms," Larsson told the E-Commerce Times. "It is these repercussions that could make or break one service over another in uncertain times."

Quality of video delivery in the long run can affect subscriber support for a provider, so it pays off in the longer term to try to anticipate and mitigate potential peaks in activity before they happen, Larsson said.

Both businesses and consumers share a stake in how stable the Internet remains, he added. A variety of new streaming services are set to launch between now and May -- including NBCUniversal's Peacock, WarnerMedia's HBO Max, and Quibi. There undoubtedly will be a lot of pressure on networks to serve up the latest original content without issue.


Jack M. Germain has been an ECT News Network reporter since 2003. His main areas of focus are enterprise IT, Linux and open source technologies. He has written numerous reviews of Linux distros and other open source software. Email Jack.


How has the pandemic impacted your daily life?
I'm interacting more with family and friends, off and online.
I'm consuming much more news.
I'm escaping through TV shows, movies and books.
I'm spending more time on personal and home projects.
I'm feeling isolated and anxious.
I have less time for work due to distractions.
My work is on the front lines -- I'm overwhelmed.