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Can the networks take it?

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As people settle into home-based work and leisure, the world’s networks have adapted phenomenally well to a radical shift in traffic patterns.

The Internet was designed to handle rapidly changing demands, but in the last couple of months it was hit by an unprecedented challenge. Due to the pandemic, people were told to stop travelling, and immediately traffic changed. Conferencing services like Zoom and Teams hit the roof, along with already-massive streaming media, and the locations changed, away from business districts to residential areas.

Overall, traffic went up, by between 20 and 70 percent, according to content delivery network Cloudflare. Peaks changed, so streaming from homes is spread across the whole day, instead of just the evening.

Astonishingly, with a few glitches here and there, it worked.

Some people found their local connectivity got strained, and streaming services like Netflix and YouTube publicly reduced their bitrate. But the most important factor to highlight is that everything kept running.

A few things combined to keep it that way. Firstly, the Internet was designed to survive major incidents like nuclear war. It’s an intelligent system that routes round problems.

Secondly, the telecoms providers are already building as fast as they can to ride an existing surge in demand. When lockdown happened, they accelerated work – and ironically, this planned activity actually caused some short term outages. Cloudflare noticed an increase in connection issues – but since the start of April, this has levelled off. The system is now upgraded and ready for a higher level of demand.

And thirdly, the service providers and the data centres they use have been preparing systems which can operate more flexibly and can surge bandwidth where needed. Networks inside data centres are going virtual.

The “meet-me room” in a data centre is where network operators, and other tenants, directly connect their networks. As traffic centralises on servers in these facilities, these connections have become crucial. Many global operators make a substantial profit on “cross-connects” – fibers that run across the data centre from one company to another. With connectivity and other factors, including power and cooling, carrying such a high cost, partnering with a provider that has the ability to deliver a lower total cost of ownership (TCO) can be essential.

In recent years, operators have moved towards “virtual meet me rooms” which allow much more flexibility. Virtual connections can be set up using these “software-defined interconnects”, then turned up – or torn up – in seconds.

The technique extends outside the building, with companies like Megaport offering virtual links between different geographies. Some industry colos even offer this as a proprietary service.

These virtual networks are changing the landscape, according to Sagi Brody, of disaster recovery provider Webai: “We’re virtualizing the physical connection, just like we virtualised physical servers. And I don’t think there’s a better use case of that capability than Covid.”

Brody himself was adding to the load, as he spoke. He was addressing a panel session for DCD’s New York conference in March, which had been shifted online at the drop of a hat, when travel to New York suddenly became impossible. Instead of addressing a few hundred people in a hotel conference centre, Brody was talking to a bigger number, in their own homes, over the Internet.

Because telecoms operators and service providers like Zoom are in the same physical location, and because a lot of traffic goes across private connections instead of the public Internet, much of the change from core to edge can actually be done before the digital information leaves the data centre.

And a lot of this will be permanent. Service providers are now looking at the “unlocking” process, and realizing that some of this won’t be reversed. Until there’s a vaccine for Covid19, remote working may well be the norm for all those whose jobs allow it. And with seats taped off on planes and trains, business meetings – and conferences – will likely continue virtually online.

Today data centres play a fundamental role in powering and connecting the world. The good news is the networks they utilise can withstand the increasing digital demands, and we are all feeling the benefits.


Peter Judge is the Global Editor at Datacenter Dynamics. You can follow Peter at @judgecorp. All guest blogs are the opinion of the author and not necessarily of Kao Data.



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