The question has been broached here before by our commenters: if a pandemic is a threat to our civil infrastructure, how do we know the internet will continue to function? It’s fine to tell workers to telecommute, but what if the information highway the commuters travel is grid locked?
Good questions without good answers. But information technology professionals are at least thinking about it. The IT trade mag, Computer World, has a story about a simulation held recently at the world Economic Forum by management consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton. The scenario was pandemic flu arriving in German from Eastern Europe:
Disturbingly, that was one finding of a simulation, or war game, held in January in Davos, Switzerland, by the World Economic Forum and management consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton. More than 30 senior industry and governmental executives played out the arrival of the flu in Germany from Eastern Europe — and the results weren’t pretty.
“We assumed total absentees of 30 percent to 60 percent trying to work from home, which would have overwhelmed the Internet,” said participant Bill Thoet, vice president of Booz Allen Hamilton. “We did not assume that the backbone would be gone, but that the edge of the network, where everyone was trying to access their office from home, would be overwhelmed. The absence of maintenance was also a factor. The person who brought up the problem was himself a CEO of an Internet service provider.
“The conclusion [of imminent collapse] was not absolute, and the situation was not digitally simulated, but the idea of everyone working from home appears untenable,” Thoet said. (Computer World)
Lamont Wood’s Computer World story was a little more optimistic about the US.
“We don’t believe that the Internet will be compromised within a matter of hours or days,” said Brent Woodworth, worldwide manager for IBM’s Crisis Response Team, which does consulting on disaster preparedness. “Most Internet traffic is reroutable, and as different areas are affected at different rates by a pandemic, the networks could anticipate increased traffic and adjust accordingly — with the caveat that critical components will be maintained.”
US observers note that internet traffic has been growing very rapidly for more than a decade, with network re-engineering growing to keep pace. Experiences with local events like the NY Transit strike, which saw many people working from home for the first day or two, did not clog the network. But some worry that while the road might handle the traffic, the parking lot at the destination would be full:
Within the Internet, there could indeed be problems, agreed Paul Froutan, vice president of research and development at Rackspace Managed Hosting Ltd., a large Web-hosting company in San Antonio. “A large company has large amounts of data traffic that never leaves the office,” he noted. “If you send people home to do the same work remotely, that could cause a problem.”
The hope is that demand will self-regulate. Users will quickly learn that they have to try again at off-peak hours and make do with slower server responses.
“A pandemic will not bring down the Internet the least little bit, but there will be local problems,” said Eric Paulak, an analyst at Gartner Corporations that plan to rely on telecommuting should act now, before an emergency, to reserve sufficient inbound bandwidth, he said.
“If you have a third of your people working from home, you will see your bandwidth requirements tripling,” Paulak said, noting that a virtual private network will take about 250Kbit/sec. per user. Rather than pay upfront for the tripling, he suggested getting “shadow service,” with reserved bandwidth that costs about 25 percent of a live connection. There are also burstable connections, where the rated connection speed represents the maximum or burst speed and the user pays only for what is actually used.
So on the checklist for continuity of operations, businesses need to include sufficient server bandwidth to handle telecommuting.
And you thought you had enough to think about.