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Work-from-home surge stress-tested ISPs, cloud for lasting changes – analysts

Global internet outages skyrocketed in March before falling somewhat to still higher-than-normal levels in June, as service providers worked to adapt to record levels of work-from-home-related traffic.

Cloud-based applications were more stable, with about 10 times fewer overall outages than internet service providers, though the percentage of cloud outages registered less sustained improvement between June and January, according to an Aug. 4 report by internet and network-service monitoring firm ThousandEyes Inc., which is in the process of being acquired by Cisco Systems Inc.

Despite the disruptions, the report found levels of performance from both ISPs and cloud providers sufficient for companies interested in expanding work-from-home employees' resources through the cloud.

March internet outages were up 63% compared to January, ThousandEyes said in its "Internet Performance Report," a six-month evaluation of the stability and availability of services during the COVID-19 pandemic. June outages fell but remained 45% higher than the January baseline as Internet service providers reconfigured and reinforced their networks to better handle sustained high-volume surges of network traffic. For cloud-based applications, June outages were 49% above January levels, compared to 44% in March and 25% in May. Europe reported the most overall outages in cloud services, though all regions saw higher-than-normal disruptions.

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The workforce demand for applications including Zoom, Slack and other video-collaboration tools during the pandemic make the stability, accessibility and performance of both cloud platforms and ISPs much more important to large corporations during this crisis, noted Melanie Posey, a research vice president at 451 Research, a division of S&P Global Market Intelligence. Previously, such outages were seen as more of a consumer inconvenience.

"The issue isn't so much around how you support the infrastructure if you're using the cloud," Posey said. "You can spin up the infrastructure you need pretty quickly ... This is a fundamental change in the way people do business." She noted increased interest in technology such as remotely powered diagnostic and restocking tools that could lead to lasting changes in certain fields.

Even with the elevated outages, the overall performance of the internet and the cloud platforms still showed relatively little degradation even under heavy load, which makes it far more likely companies will invest more in the cloud, according to Carl Brooks, cloud and data-center analyst at 451 Research. Even if those investments are narrowly targeted at first, he expects companies will have contingency plans to surge remote work in any future crisis.

"Roughly a third to half of enterprises use private clouds in a substantial way," Brooks said. "Many of them look at this situation and are not happy that they can't have people do their whole jobs online. Some are willing to take the financial hit to do a lot of that now, but more likely what you'll see is the adaptation they need to do right now."

But within five years, those investments are likely to expand, he added.

Configuration, not capacity, was the big problem during the early days of the work-from-home surge, according to Angelique Medina, ThousandEyes director of product marketing. Outages for ISPs and cloud providers started to increase during low traffic periods that, over time, made it obvious that network managers were trying to figure out how to configure systems for new peak times and elevated sign-ins, she said.

ThousandEyes counted about 400 outages worldwide among cloud service providers between January and July, and about 4,500 outages among ISPs as well as providers of domain name services, content delivery networks and other network-service providers. Outages among ISPs averaged between 700 and 800 per month before the pandemic, the report said.

Verizon Communications Inc., for example, reported that between March 1 and May 31, its customers increased the amount of internet traffic sent across Verizon's network by more than 1200%, increased the use of virtual private networks by 81%, and expanded their video streaming by 37% and their web browsing by 49%.

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