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Growing the Internet 28 February 2020

Is the Internet Resilient Enough to Withstand Coronavirus?

By David BelsonFormer Senior Director, Internet Research and Analysis

It’s being called the world’s biggest work-from-home experiment. With concerns growing over the spread of the COVID-19 Coronavirus, schools and businesses around the world are implementing contingency plans that encourage distance learning and work from home. Usage of e-learning, messaging, and videoconferencing tools is also growing rapidly, placing additional load on these Internet-based applications and platforms and generating additional traffic. And with more people staying at home, online media consumption is poised to increase as well.

Many are wondering if the Internet can handle the strain of rapid traffic growth and increased latency. Will it cause a catastrophic failure of the Internet? The answer: not likely.

Core Internet infrastructure providers should be able to easily absorb the increase in traffic and demand, especially if the growth is gradual over a period of days, weeks, or months. Cloud infrastructure providers should also have sufficient additional compute, storage, and bandwidth capacity to enable their customers, including the e-learning, messaging, and videoconferencing tool providers, to scale their systems as necessary. In order to keep traffic local, content delivery infrastructure from companies including Akamai, Cloudflare, Google, Netflix, and Apple is deployed in many last-mile networks.

Internet Exchange Points (IXPs) can also help keep traffic local, giving local network providers with a place to interconnect and exchange traffic with one another, as well as interconnecting with major content providers. (The Internet Society works to promote and support the deployment and use of IXPs around the world.)

The more likely place for the failures to occur is with the tools themselves, if they have not provisioned sufficient compute, storage, or bandwidth resources to deal with the increased traffic. Examples of such failures have already been observed in China, where servers supporting Baidu’s iQiyi streaming service, an educational application called Xuexitong, popular office applications including video conferencing applications DingTalk and WeChat Work, and online games from Tencent all reportedly crashed due to increased traffic. These failures are arguably similar to those seen on e-commerce or gaming platforms on high-traffic days, where backend systems are unable to process the higher than normal volume of orders or account activations.

Tracking the impact to the Internet of increased remote work has been highlighted as an area of interest to the Internet measurement community. As a co-leader of the Internet Society’s  “Measuring the Internet” project (one of the Internet Society’s eight 2020 Action Plan projects), it’s of interest to me as well. Measuring the Internet can help identify emerging issues – and help develop solutions.

Measurements done by RIPE Atlas and Oracle Internet Intelligence can help gauge changes in latency, and Internet Exchange Point (IXP) traffic data (for example, from Kenya’s IXP) can help illustrate local changes in traffic levels. But attribution is the key challenge. We can’t definitively state that observed latency or traffic changes are due to increased use of remote work tools and platforms, or increased media consumption.

How Can You Help?

  • If you are an infrastructure provider, such as a content delivery network, share relevant traffic statistics, aggregated at a country and/or industry vertical level.
  • If you are an end-user, find and bookmark the status pages for the tools and platforms that you rely on for updated information about issues they may be experiencing. Downdetector is also useful for learning if other users are also experiencing similar issues.
  • And finally, if you are a journalist, you can be responsible in your reporting and accurate in your headlines. When a single platform or tool, no matter how important, is briefly slow or unavailable, report it as just that – not a broad Internet outage or failure.

If you’re interested in supporting or learning more about the “Measuring the Internet” project, let us know. We’re also happy to talk more about the spectrum of Internet disruptions, from inaccessible sites to complete national shutdowns.

Image by Dimitri Karastelev via Unsplash

Disclaimer: Viewpoints expressed in this post are those of the author and may or may not reflect official Internet Society positions.

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