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March 25, 2020

As COVID-19 Upends Life, Internet Apps Struggle with Load

Alex Woodie

(Munimara/Shutterstock) Street traffic in Madrid, Spain, is nonexistent thanks to COVID-19

Large swaths of the world’s population have been locked down in an unprecedented attempt to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. People have responded by working, playing, and learning from home through telecommuting and distance learning applications, which has triggered an unparalleled surge in Internet traffic in recent days.

Video conferencing applications like Zoom and WebEx have experienced huge increase in demand as much of the Western World has been locked down due to COVID-19. Traffic on WebEx is 2.5x higher than it was in February, according to Cisco Systems, which owns WebEx. During peak hours, traffic is 24x what it normally would be. Meanwhile, Zoom’s free mobile client has, zoomed (so to speak) to the top of the charts of most popular apps.

Facebook has one of the burliest applications on the planet, and runs its own data centers to guarantee reliability of the world’s most popular social platform. But even Mark Zuckerberg’s mighty ship has encountered some rough seas thanks to the viral outbreak.

“Our services were built to withstand spikes during events such as the Olympics or on New Year’s Eve,” Facebook execs Alex Schultz and Jay Parikh wrote in a blog post yesterday. “However, those happen infrequently, and we have plenty of time to prepare for them. The usage growth from COVID-19 is unprecedented across the industry, and we are experiencing new records in usage almost every day.”

PagerDuty is tracking an uptick in helpdesk requests

In-home data usage in the United States was up nearly 20% during the first two weeks of March, according to Comscore, while in Spain, mobile traffic is up 50% and threatening to collapse the networks, an executive Vodafone said, according to a story in El Mundo.

All of this work- and play-from-home is testing the applications, systems, and networks that we rely on. According to digital operations management provider PagerDuty, its customers are experiencing helpdesk incidents at twice the normal rate. The average company has doubled the number of responders associated with crisis teams and special task forces, “just to keep the lights on,” the company said.

“Most incidents are not service interruptions or failures,” said Rachel Obsteler, vice president of product for PagerDuty, which has 12,000 customers, including Vodaphone and American Eagle Outfitters. “They are signs of stress to the system from changes such as a sudden increase in Web traffic, or new code or infrastructure introduced to the system.”

Incidents are up by 11x for online learning applications, the highest of the application cohorts tracked by PagerDuty. Thousands of schools across the world have closed down physical campuses and been forced to ramp up distance learning technology in the past week as millions of students remain at home under the coronavirus quarantine.

The Internet is bending — but not breaking — under increased demands from the COVID-19  quarantine (metamorworks/Shutterstock)

Companies in the travel and collaboration services industries are also experiencing higher than normal incidents, PagerDuty says, followed by non-essential retail, entertainment, health and fitness, finance, traditional education, and food retail and delivery.

“This level of increased activity puts a strain on IT teams and leadership to triage and resolve incidents as they arise, to ensure they are able to serve their customers,” Obsteler says. “This is a hard thing to do—not only are these companies dealing with far more digital pressure, they also have to develop new processes to account for remote working, adjust for new IT services and infrastructure needs on-the-fly, and in many cases spin up their own crisis response teams.”

There’s a good chance the COVID-19 quarantine will change how we work and learn going forward, says Mike Gualtieri, a vice president and principal analyst for AI at Forrester.

“I think we’ve already seen adoption of distance learning previously, so this might accelerate it from a strategic standpoint,” Gualtieri tells Datanami in an interview. “When this is all over, you can imagine a strategy that says, alright, if this happens in the future, we should have plans to add this and maybe we should accelerate our adoption of this and put more stuff online.”

People are working longer hours from home due to the COVID-19 quarantine, according to NordVPN

The response will also accelerate the adoption of AIOps, particularly for those organizations that have struggled to keep up with the rapidly changing network traffic and application demands. “Now you’re going to tax the resources of the Internet and bandwidth at a local and national level,” Gualtieri continues “So it makes sense that you’d want to intelligently monitor and reconfigure [that].”

Working from home often leads to a very different experience of many business-critical applications, according to James Burns, a developer advocate at LightStep, which develops an end-to-end “observability” platform used by customers like Lyft, Plaid, and Digital Ocean.

“Instead of a well provisioned and lightly used corporate network, video conferencing and online education streams contend with regular application traffic just trying to get through as households or roommates all work from home,” Burns tells us. “Making this worse, observability for many critical business applications start at the servers instead of on the clients or Web browser, so application owners hear about the issues through an influx of support calls and tickets.”

The COVID-19 outbreak has been a boon to the virtual private network (VPN) sector of the market. NordVPN, which develops cloud-based VPN software, says it’s seen a 165% spike in usage and a 6x increase in sales as a result of the coronavirus outbreak and the unparalleled quarantine.

The quarantine is also changing work habits. According to NordVPN’s data, employees are starting work earlier, but finishing at the same time. “This is perhaps because people are not commuting, and instead of sitting in traffic, they choose to work,” says Daniel Markuson, a digital privacy expert at NordVPN Teams. The company also found that American workers are spending an extra three hours per day on business.

The sharp increase seen “shows how unprepared companies are for such situations,” the company says. It cited statistics from Gartner that say large companies (those with 10,000 employees) are equipped to allow only 10% of their workforce to work remotely.

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