Networks and the Pandemic

What will be your limiting factor to business as usual?

I was talking yesterday to a colleague about the potential impact of H1N1 and business continuity planning, and in particular the impact on network operations. And today I saw an article on the topic, in which the US Federal Government Accountability Office (GAO) has made pronouncements about how the Internet might be affected. At first you might wonder what a health care issue would have to do with IT? Well - it's clearly more than just a health of the IT staff or the health of the user community. As with any business continuity issue, planning for a pandemic situation means planning to accommodate a significantly larger remote access population than normal. Let's think a little about what special accommodations you will need to consider. First off you need to make sure that you have the access technology in place for IT end users to reach and use the applications they need without being attached to the campus LAN. Most shops have this figured out already. Next, your remote access infrastructure must be able to scale substantially. This means having sufficient bandwidth within your Internet access links, your VPN concentrators, firewalls, etc. Not everyone has this figured out, or at least not to the scale of a pandemic situation. More commonly in place are plans that will handle worker dislocation on a site by site basis. What's different with a pandemic situation, as pointed out in the article, is that it will not be just your company which is affected. There may be many other organizations within your geographic region, including substantial populations of schoolchildren, also spending the time at home. This means lots of teleworkers remotely accessing business applications, thrown together with many others who may take advantage of the extra home time by engaging in Internet-based recreational activities. Can you say congestion? While most consumer Internet access services have reached the multi-megabit range of capacity in the last mile, some share that capacity (the basis of most cable services) and those that do not share (such as fiber to the home ) are still limited in total backhaul capacity. This can be said for any of the primary residential access service types, be it cable, DSL, satellite, or fiber. And for anyone working on dial-up modem, well, let's just not go there. In a non-pandemic situation, the problem is not as severe, because the population shift to home-based work is not as pervasive. Consequently, recreational traffic which typically peaks in the evening hours would be less of a problem during normal business time. But with the pandemic, just as many recreational Internet users will likely be home as teleworkers, negating this beneficial offset. The GAO rightly points out that our options are limited in how to deal with Internet overload in the pandemic scenario. Having service providers apply management schemes to the network traffic is a dangerous and arbitrary process. Shutting down high traffic websites is also practically impossible to fairly adjudicate. Service providers can help the situation by continuing to expand capacity in the access and backhaul networks, however that is unlikely to happen in time to help us this flu season. The only practical approach to preventing residential access network gridlock may be voluntary public compliance with common sense usage practices. Interestingly, the pandemic scenario actually gives us some insight into a more natural future state of business operations, where the vast majority of IT-user workers are mobile, and are only loosely tied to specific geographic locations. So as usual, there is benefit to be gained from a crisis, if you take the initiative to think long-term while acting in the short term. Good luck and good health...

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