This past October 29, the world marked a golden anniversary -- the day a UCLA researcher sent a message to a Stanford Research Institute colleague over ARPANET, the experimental computer network that would evolve into the internet.
While the internet ignited a technology revolution that has reshaped the global economy and the very nature of modern life, few could have imagined on its 50th birthday that a pandemic would come along a few months later to provide its biggest test yet.
COVID-19 has put unprecedented strain on networks as virtually our entire existences have shifted online, from work meetings to school classes to staying in touch with family members and friends to bingeing TV shows. We’ve become so reliant on the internet that nearly nine of 10 U.S. adults say it has been essential or important for them during the crisis, according to a Pew Research study.
The coronavirus outbreak has provided a vivid yardstick of how digital networks perform under extreme stress, in ways that will have lasting implications for the way infrastructure is built and managed well after the emergency has subsided. Here are four big-picture observations:
1) The internet has proven remarkably resilient
The surge in network traffic numbers has been striking. Many telecom providers say traffic has at least doubled, as millions of homebound users convene online, and services such as Zoom and Slack experience record user growth.
However, other than the occasional glitch – a website that won’t load, a frozen face in a Zoom meeting, marginally slower speeds in the U.S. – the internet has held up well, perhaps surprisingly so.
This suggests that while there's always room for improvement, and it's vital to keep modernizing the nation’s broadband infrastructure, the internet backbone is essentially strong. Which is great news. However….
2) Company IT systems and teams are under pressure
The sudden influx of remote workers has forced organizations to confront a new, complex challenge: how to keep them connected and productive while ensuring business continuity and security.
Traditionally-configured VPN servers weren’t designed for this much traffic and have been easily overwhelmed. Meanwhile, home networks using consumer Wi-Fi routers lack the robust security in an enterprise network.
This has organizations scrambling to find ways to assure performance and security while also being able to scale rapidly to support ever-changing traffic patterns and a growing expanding remote workforce.
Companies need to be proactive in tackling these challenges quickly and efficiently, with comprehensive strategies to provide the same ease of use and management, network reliability, and security as when it consisted of a headquarters and a few branch offices rather than thousands of people in different locations.
This is a point that will remain relevant long after the crisis has passed because an increasingly remote workforce is likely to remain a permanent fixture in the corporate landscape. Nearly three-quarters of CFOs and finance leaders plan to move at least 5 percent of their previously on-site workforce to remote positions, according to a Gartner survey.
3) The cloud has never been more critical
Try to imagine the world right now without the cloud and the access to applications it has enabled in a sheltered-in-place world. It’s impossible to do.
COVID-19 will only accelerate the adoption of cloud infrastructure and services. And as the cloud becomes ever-more integral, it will be crucial for companies to reduce the complexity and operating expenses of building and managing private, public, and hybrid clouds.
As a result, I predict an increasing appetite for advanced cloud capabilities, such as dynamic orchestration and automation, that allow organizations and service providers to design and operate more scalable, efficient, and flexible multicloud infrastructures, with fewer human operators.
4) Infrastructure will need to become self-driving
Pick a term – autonomic, self-aware, self-driving, self-healing, cognitive. No matter what you call it, the concept of networks that can automatically observe, learn from, and respond to changing conditions has been a vision among computer scientists for years.
Enterprises are increasingly relying on such capabilities to simplify network infrastructure, and this has only gained importance as we ask more of our digital networks without being able to expect already-strapped IT teams to manually address every performance issue that arises.
For example, it’s possible to constantly obtain performance data from all systems across the infrastructure and use artificial intelligence and machine learning to examine how everything is behaving and recommend or even automatically take actions (say, re-starting a DHCP server).
These last several weeks have vividly illustrated the value of self-driving networks that can capture and analyze data and use automation to adapt to changing conditions, with as little human intervention as possible.
The internet may be 50-plus years old, but we may end up looking back on COVID-19 as the time when it truly grew up. The pandemic has given the internet its largest stress test to date and spotlighted the approaches that will serve network infrastructure well into the future.