Coronavirus: Can the networks take the strain?

It was predicted that the mass roll-out of computer networks would mean at some point that there was no difference between work and home as a working location. These assumptions are about to be tested to the full

After a period of some passivity, the UK government is at last acting decisively in managing the threat to public health from the Covid-19 coronavirus. With unprecedented numbers of people, potentially in the tens of millions in countries such as the UK, now being asked to work from home, inevitably making vastly increased usage of high-quality video services as well as video-on-demand, there are genuine concerns that overloaded networks will not be able to cope.

The question is: how can your business cope when it is likely that the office will, for some time, be a thing of the past?

There are basically two elements to this: fundamental capability and best practice. That is to say, can you work and, if so, how you should go about doing so?

In the former regard, capability really comes down to whether residential networks can support home working on a scale that was never previously envisaged? When talking about networks in this context, we won’t for the moment discuss 5G.

In theory, 5G networks give, and indeed were constructed to give, businesses the ability to use demanding applications on the go. Yet in practice, even though 5G networks are rapidly being built throughout countries, the number of use cases they support in mainstream practice is too small right now to be of realistic concern here.

What is of genuine concern, though, are national broadband networks. Mirroring the way in which some countries have had to react to the coronavirus sooner than others, so infrastructure providers have had to come up with business continuity solutions sooner, too. Compared to the UK, Spain is a great example.

On 12 March, Spain’s leading communications operators – Telefónica’s Movistar, Orange, Vodafone, Grupo Masmóvil and Grupo Euskaltel – revealed that both fixed and mobile telecommunications networks had experiencing a traffic explosion in recent days because of the spread of Covid-19 in the country and the measures and recommendations derived from it.

Even though Spain is a European leader in terms of fibre optic infrastructure and has one of the best mobile networks in the continent, the operators appealed to users for rational and responsible use of networks so that providers and users alike could enjoy a communications ecosystem that was sustainable over time – especially in the face of a scenario of increased home working and remote schooling that may last several weeks.

Traffic increases

Operators’ measurements found that, in general terms up to 12 March, traffic through IP networks had seen increases of nearly 40% while mobile use has increased by about 50% in voice and 25% in data. Traffic from instant messaging tools such as WhatsApp had increased fivefold in recent days. In a tell-tale sign of the increased use of teleworking, network traffic related to remote work tools such as Skype and Webex has increased fourfold.

There is nothing to suggest that the same scenario will be played out in all the European countries that enter lockdown, if they do. And therein lies an issue: who knows what is actually going on and when and what are networking firms doing to ensure that the lights stay lit?

The UK’s second-largest broadband provider, Virgin Media, said it realises how important its network is to everyone right now. The company said it wants to reassure users that it is working as hard as it can to keep it in “great shape”. In particular, Virgin stressed that as more people work from home, it is important for users to know that its network can withstand any increased usage, including peaks throughout the day, in the evenings and at weekends.

Virgin assured customers that as usage inevitably rises, its existing capacity will be able to take the strain and that it is monitoring closely on network issues and is ready to make changes if needed. It said it is set up for staff and customers to work from home – it has done a full impact assessment, including continuity planning, so it can keep managing and operating the network.

But inevitably it will be BT that bears the heaviest strain in this regard, with the provider connected to 11 million businesses and households. Aiming to alleviate worries in both the business and consumer community, Howard Watson, chief technology officer of the BT Group, published a video on 13 March with the express purpose of clearing up any confusion and offering reassurance on home working because of the coronavirus.

While acknowledging that traffic will increase substantially with more people at home, Watson revealed that the BT network peaks for traffic in the evening between 8pm and 9pm, when network capacity reaches about 17 terabits per second. This is mainly driven by people streaming material or downloading the latest software updates for online and console games.

Watson said that this peak, which BT manages routinely, is significantly higher than from households during the day, perhaps 10 times more. Also, from a business perspective, Watson said the traffic that goes out from business sites to datacentres during a working day, overall traffic from work, was about a quarter of what it saw in the evening from households.

Focus on VPNs

With that in mind, BT said it is confident it can accommodate people working from home, and their work from home traffic, on both the core and access networks provided by its Openreach division. Watson added that BT is also working with its enterprise customers as they upgrade their virtual private networks (VPNs).

Is it just a gross assumption just to work on the basis that all firms can actually work from home by accessing their VPNs as per normal? Not necessarily, said Shashi Kiran, CPO of SD-WAN service provider Aryaka. Kiran pointed out that Microsoft Teams has already experienced performance difficulties and it will almost certainly not be the last collaboration package to do so.

He warned that current networking tools, although currently working, are simply not designed for the mass peak capacity usage that has suddenly been thrust upon the industry, VPNs in particular.

“VPN solutions have traditionally been capable of providing sufficient corporate connectivity to enable working from home.” said Kiran. “These solutions are, however, designed for a scale significantly more limited than what we are seeing today, where the network architectures are designed to have a specific number of telecommuters connecting to a single VPN concentrator within a specific geography.

“With substantial disruption on a scale previously unseen, as a result of Covid-19, these concentrators have become burdened and overwhelmed with the number of connections and the volume of throughput required to support significant remote workforces.

“Even though remote users are able to connect to globally dispersed VPN servers for business applications, the user experience is poor because the transport is across the long-haul public internet. The internet, especially across long distances, suffers from high levels of packet loss as well as increased latency and jitter.”

Kiran said the solution to alleviate the performance issues of traditional remote access and telecommuting solutions is to deploy global software-defined wide area networks (SD-WANs) that adopt cloud-first principles with the right type of secure remote access. He warned that such an approach is impossible through the public internet or traditional VPN/remote access solutions alone.

But given that the network companies have given these assurances that the networks in the UK at least will run, what should firms be doing to get the best out of them – or actually use them? In certain sectors, such as manufacturing, utilities and healthcare, there are enterprises that provide business-critical services that require personnel to be on-site, or at least have on-premise access to the company network.

“We are seeing a significant increase in collaboration tools used by the remote workforce”

Joe Bombagi, Riverbed

Roger Sands, CEO of AI-based Wi-Fi automation technology provider Wyebot, said that if it is the case that home working is viable, remote network visibility, real-time and historical quality metrics and the ability to run network tests will be vitally important to maintaining an optimised network, and in turn, productivity.

“If all your company’s information is accessible on the public cloud, then working from home should be relatively seamless, no matter the size of the enterprise,” said Sands. “However, for certain businesses, there are privacy and security concerns that prevent employees from working from the public cloud.

“Because employees are relying on the business network even though they are off-site, IT still needs to be able to access it and ensure it performs well and maintains functionality. If the company’s policy restricts travel to certain remote sites, then it is crucial that the IT team has remote access to the network.

“Without this access, if the network goes down or performs poorly, they do not have the information necessary to troubleshoot issues and get it back up and running efficiently again.”

Joe Bombagi, technical director Northern Europe of network applications performance optimisation firm Riverbed, said that although keeping employees safe is the priority, businesses still need to run. To maintain business continuity and staff productivity during this time at Riverbed, he said companies need to adapt quickly, focusing on the mobile and remote workforce.

“Being able to inspire this universal change in working behaviour and maintain the performance of applications is critical for employees to remain productive,” said Bombagi. “We are seeing a significant increase in collaboration tools used by the remote workforce. Performance is therefore paramount to IT teams, given this tremendous strain on the network.

“Firms need to introduce visibility tools that provide a comprehensive view of network and application performance across the business – tools that can quickly diagnose and fix network issues should they arise during a surge in demand, and that can optimise experience and workforce productivity, regardless of location.”

“Remote working has become standard across many industries, but not on the scale we’re now experiencing”

Richard Downs, Applause

Diagnostics and testing will be crucial as faculties become more distributed, said Richard Downs, UK director at app digital crowd testing firm Applause. “Remote working has become standard across many industries, but not on the scale we’re now experiencing,” he said. “In a situation where large numbers of employees are required to work from home, companies need to be confident in their ability to continually test and release quality digital experiences.

“Users are used to a flawless experience and expect the same even as the volume of users grows each day and in-lab testing becomes unrealistic with QA teams at home. Many brands already leverage on-demand distributed testing to ensure they can meet the needs of their clients at all times. Not only does this approach improve scalability and flexibility, it also provides a real-world view of digital experiences, as remote testers interact with digital products as customers would in their daily lives.

“This is critical at a time when businesses and organisations of all shapes and sizes are faced with sending employees to work from home. Thanks to enterprise-grade crowd testing techniques, they can do this with the knowledge that they are fully prepared.”

Some technology companies are already trying to assist those having to implement vastly more distributed working with special offers for the foreseeable future. To address what it says is already a 90% increase in demand from workforces needing immediate home working solutions, teamwork and smart work technology provider Klaxoon has launched a three-month free period of its collaboration tools for new users, accompanied by dedicated help teams.

Klaxoon CEO Matthieu Beucher said: “Remote working can be difficult for some as it can be hard to stay motivated while being far away from your office routine, colleagues and environment. It is therefore important in this situation that individuals and teams continue to feel integrated while working remotely.

“Why? So that an organisation is able to keep motivation levels up, to continue to act in-sync with the overarching business objectives while ensuring that team members are on track with achieving their specific targets. In a remote work context, communication and collaboration are key.”

Read more about UK broadband

And Klaxoon is not alone. There are a number of offers specifically designed to support what is hoped to be temporary home working. But there’s the rub – what if the reaction to coronavirus sees temporary become permanent?

If the networks can handle the massive strain and productivity remains acceptable in the new business environment, then could it all mean that managing the short term really is preparing for a new business operating culture?

Also, there is a known unknown that could change everything – home education. The UK will close all schools and colleges on 20 March and will attempt to educate children and students using home-based tools. It is unclear exactly what added strain these tools will place on home networks.

This is something that UK specialist business continuity and IT disaster recovery provider Databarracks feels organisations need to look at now. “When the schools close, we will have a new mix of massive home working combined with the country’s population of schoolchildren gaming and streaming content at the same time,” said the company’s non-executive chairman, Mike Osborne. “This is going to put unprecedented demand on broadband and mobile networks.

“Organisations are already in trying circumstances, doing their best to maintain operations with staff working from home. All the work that has been done securing access, providing devices and collaboration apps is immaterial if staff can’t connect. The key will be to remain flexible and look for alternatives, wherever possible, to reduce the strain.

“Ultimately, the problem many businesses will face is that while some employees do regularly work from home, the vast majority are office-based and therefore don’t. It’s going to be a testing time, but now we need to think about continuity from the point of view of home working. Home workers don’t have the central control that we would have in an office, so organisations need to work with staff to outline the options available to them and empower them to make those decisions.”

As with everything associated with coronavirus, everything is up in the air right now.

Read more on Telecoms networks and broadband communications

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