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Coughs and hiccups aside, internet seems mostly immune to pandemic pressures

Despite a major pop in internet traffic thanks to the pandemic, ISPs, CDNs, and cloud providers all proved up to the traffic challenge.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

The coronavirus pandemic has changed everything. In business that has meant millions of us are now working from home. That, in turn, means we're now using the internet more than ever. How much more? According to the Internet Society, starting in late February, in the United States we saw a "30% in upstream traffic, with downstream traffic increasing on the order of 20%."

Ouch! That's a lot more bytes. 

But, Thousand Eyes, a network monitoring company, found that despite this flood of traffic, Internet Service Providers (ISP)s, Content Delivery Networks (CDN)s, and public clouds have kept the bits moving smoothly on the internet superhighway.

Using its measurements of network performance metrics such as packet loss, latency, and jitter, ThousandEyes found that, despite a 63% rise in global internet disruptions from January to March 2020 with still 44% more failures in June compared to January, the internet is doing well. That's because many of these disruptions in North America happened after traditional business hours so they didn't meaningfully impact most working internet users. It was a different story in Europe where ISP failures often occurred during business hours. 

ThousandEyes stated:

Overall, the Internet held up. Despite unprecedented conditions and an increase in network disruptions, Internet-related infrastructures have held up well, suggesting overall healthy capacity, scalability, and operator agility needed to adjust to unforeseen demands. Negative performance indicators, such as traffic delay, loss, and jitter generally remained within tolerable ranges, showing no evidence of systemic network duress  . 

Most of the service troubles were caused not because of an overloaded internet, but because ISP operators were adjusting their networks to accommodate changes in traffic patterns and load. 

"Initially, we saw both businesses and service providers scramble to adjust, overnight, to work-from-home environments. However now, we see a definite shift towards accommodating a more permanent scenario of serving a remote workforce," said Paul Bevan, Bloor Research's research director of IT Infrastructure. "This is creating a realignment of network infrastructure that will look very different from pre-March network platforms." 

Of course, it is. As Angelique Medina, ThousandEyes' director of product marketing, observed, "With the overnight transition to a remote workforce, remote schooling, and remote entertainment that many countries experienced in March, we saw outages spike to unprecedented levels -- especially among ISPs who seem to have been more vulnerable to disruptions than cloud providers."

The company's research found cloud provider networks were more stable than ISPs. That's the good news. The bad news is that when the public cloud companies had outages they were more likely to impact users.

The key internet services companies, which are critical to internet performance -- CDN and Domain Name System (DNS)  providers -- held up well despite the increased and changing traffic conditions. Still, there have been real disruptions. In mid-July, Cloudflare, the major CDN and DNS service, had a major DNS failure. This led to tens of millions of users briefly finding their internet services failing.

So, for now, the internet is holding up under the load. As we close in on six months of working from home -- with no end in sight -- it's good to know at least we can count on the internet. 

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