May you live in interesting times—this well-known curse of probably Chinese origins can be applied to the pandemic era we are living through in 2020. Yet COVID-19 may also be a blessing of sorts, albeit one very much in disguise: it is likely to speed up the adoption of modern networking technology that will help companies be more flexible and secure in the midst of so much turmoil.
As the COVID-19 pandemic was spreading globally and forcing governments to introduce hard lockdowns, people became more online-dependent —for work, school, communication and entertainment. This caused a massive surge in Internet traffic and raised concerns as to whether our network infrastructure could handle it.
At the very beginning of the pandemic in Europe, five major Spanish telecommunications operators, including Orange and Vodafone, warned that a roughly 40% spike in traffic had flooded IP networks together with a 50% jump in voice calls due to the rapid expansion of coronavirus. They urged users to use the Internet responsibly to avoid collapsing their networks.
The increased Internet traffic was slowing the networks’ speed. In mid-February 2020, users in Spain, Italy and Germany, badly hit by the first wave of the pandemic, noted that the speed of their Internet connection had deteriorated. In March, Ookla, a company behind Speedtest—a tool for measuring Internet connection speed—said it had observed the same flagging speed in the US. Ookla had started tracking the COVID-19 impact on global internet performance.
Streaming services are indeed on the rise. According to the COVID-19 Global Internet Phenomena Report published by Sandivne in May 2020, video streaming is responsible for 57.64% of global Internet traffic—a 2.20% increase over the 2019 figure. During the worldwide stay-at-home orders, YouTube was the undisputed leader, commanding over 15% of global application traffic, while Netflix was responsible for 11%. To avoid network congestion, YouTube and Netflix, following appeals from UE officials, reduced their streaming quality.
Even if the Speedtest Global Index shows that Internet speed has now returned in most countries to pre-COVID-19 levels, Internet traffic is set to rise even more in 2021, as enterprises and consumers become more and more network-dependent.
Growing Internet traffic and concerns about network infrastructure are affecting our everyday lives, but coronavirus also has a profound impact on our businesses. The main challenge the companies are facing now is the need to work remotely. To make a smooth transition from on-site to remote work, an organization needs to have in place clear procedures, competent IT staff and proper networking technology. Here the technology itself plays a vital role, as it ensures the traffic in the company’s network is properly secured.
VPN or Virtual Private Network has become a keyword. Unfortunately, not every company had used a VPN before the pandemic so many needed to make an effort to catch up. Even if a company had a properly configured VPN, most of its employees didn’t use it, as they mostly worked onsite in the office. But with the pandemic scattering everyone into home-office mode, bandwidth suddenly became an issue. When the entire company moved online, it was hard to scale it up to cover the surge in traffic. In fact, the Sandvine’s COVID-19 GlobalInternet Phenomena Report notes that VPN applications together with video conferencing applications (e.g. Zoom or WebEx) have driven Internet traffic growth during the pandemic.
Still, if you are an enterprise seeking to ensure security and productivity for your branch offices in different geographical locations, VPN alone is not enough. How to, for example, organize the remote work of the accounting department which needs to have access to the accounting network? How to ensure that highly confidential financial documents are properly secured and accounting software can be used effectively across different branches in geographically distributed locations?
SD-WAN—the implementation of the SDN concept into WAN topologies—can help enterprises tackle these issues. The main concept mirrors that of SDN—to separate the control plane from the data plane and centralize the control plane, from which multiple devices can be controlled. The control plane takes the form of a shared service, making it accessible for all administrators within an organization or, in case of multi-tenancy, for many organizations.
A typical use case scenario for the SD-WAN implementation in the pandemic would be an enterprise with multiple branch offices located in geographically different locations that needs to organize secure connectivity among them and allow its remote employees to use enterprise applications effectively. Traditional WANs can not handle these tasks effectively, as they usually require all branch office traffic and remote employees to be backhauled to a centralized data center. Only their security features can be applied. But backhaul causes delays that worsen both productivity and user experience.
SD-WAN, on the other hand, fully supports on-premise data centres, software-as-a-service (SaaS) and public cloud infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS) applications and can help optimize their performance.
SD-WAN also allows you to ensure proper security for every user and device regardless of their physical location. A control plane separated from the data plane allows administrators to apply security policies automatically across different workloads, locations, devices and branches. Security policies are applied automatically to new users based on the workgroup or business department they belong to, among other factors.
The current pandemic will definitely accelerate digital transformation of many organizations that had already decided to change their organizational model. Instead of one or several centrally located big offices, they will have multiple smaller ones, i.e. located in smaller cities and towns. SD-WAN will be a handy solution to ensure connectivity and security across them.
What’s even more, you can imagine that enterprises will be sending SD-WAN-enablend and pre-configured networking hardware to their remote employees. They will just be plugging it into their local network and will be able to do remote work securely and effectively.
But that is not all. When organizing remote work for their employees, those companies that had already been using public cloud solutions found themselves in a better position. On-prem infrastructure, if not equipped with secure connectivity, was a serious obstacle for companies that wanted to become fully remote.
On the other hand, public clouds allowed for a faster transition to remote work and helped organize a remote workplace more efficiently. Undoubtedly, this contributed to their even greater popularity, as cloud adoption is not merely a question of cost optimization or scalability, but can ensure business continuity in the midst of turmoil, pandemic related and otherwise. It is therefore reasonable to expect that more and more businesses will be using cloud solutions instead of on-prem ones in 2021.
The major part of the global workforce working remotely increases the attack surface for cybercriminals, for whom the global pandemic has been a true gold mine: the number of cyberattacks is skyrocketing. The US FBI reports that cyberattack-related complaints sent to its Cyber Division have increased fourfold over pre-coronavirus era numbers. The International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol) says that cybercriminals have homed in on government agencies, major corporations and the healthcare sector, as the financial haul is bigger there.
As you can clearly see, cybersecurity has become one of the main focus points during the COVID-19 outbreak. According to a Microsoft survey, 58% of respondents increased their security budgets and 82% plan to hire more cybersecurity specialists. Companies have to tackle not only rising cybercrime but also to ensure productivity and positive user experience for their remote employees.
In this context, SASE (Service Access Security Edge) may be a useful solution. This new cybersecurity idea was first described by Gartner in its August 2019 report, “The future of network security is in the cloud”. It anticipates a software-defined wide area network (SD-WAN) with such network security services as Cloud Access Security Broker (CSAB), Firewall as a Service (FWaaS) and Zero Trust model to create a single cloud-native security service.
A typical SASE use case could look as follows. A company needs to ensure secure access to corporate assets for its distributed workforce working from different locations and using different devices and networks. As zero-trust network access mode is being applied, users access the company’s resources in a secure way regardless of their physical locations—they can even use public Wi-Fi. Every network edge, including IoT devices, use the same security features including threat protections or firewalls controlled from a central control panel. Additionally, users can be assigned to workgroups granted permissions based on policies that can be automatically adjusted if something changes, e.g. some users have been only temporarily assigned to a workgroup.
Last but not least, networking technology can play an important role in fighting the current pandemic. Mobile service providers can help governments monitor people's movements and trace their contacts, thus limiting the spread of coronavirus. One country that has been successful containing the virus is South Korea, which used GPS data from mobile phones to track possible coronavirus cases and take appropriate containment measures.
COVID-19 monitoring is an excellent example of how the Internet of behaviors can be used. Different kinds of data (customer data, social media, facial recognition, credit card transactions, locations, etc.) are collected and analyzed to influence the behavior of people in the real world. Gartner has already named the Internet of behaviors a major strategic trend for 2021.
Of course, such measures have awakened concern about the loss of privacy. If government agencies have access to citizens’ sensitive data, like their location, travel or credit card transactions, there is always a possibility that this data will be used for other, more politically motivated, purposes than just protecting citizens’ health. This is definitely another challenge for both network software providers and telecommunications operators to tackle in 2021.
As hospitals focused on fighting the pandemic, patients were overnight cut off from the healthcare system. Many of them had chronic diseases that were an additional risk factor. As a result, doctors started seeing patients remotely, over the phone or using other communication tools. The solution was not ideal but better than none. Still, the current situation is expected to accelerate the development of distance medicine, allowing doctors to comprehensively diagnose and monitor patients remotely.
In this context, IoT networks can help make our healthcare systems more efficient. Before the pandemic, M2M connections (machine-to-machine), including all kinds of healthcare monitoring systems, were growing fast. According to Cisco’s Annual Internet Report (2018–2023), which was published before the COVID-19 crisis, by 2023 M2M connections will constitute half of the global connected devices and connections. The pandemic will definitely increase the pace at which these numbers are growing.
Increased data flow and the need to ensure application performance will be a challenge for a traditional, centralized infrastructure. We can expect growing demand for edge computing solutions, where the data processing is performed as close to the source as possible, rather than in the cloud or a centralized data center. A hospital with plenty of monitoring devices and tons of patient data collected and analyzed in real time is a good use case. To process these data effectively, low latency is crucial. It can be achieved if the data are sent to a micro data center located close to the data source, i.e. the health monitoring device. Decreasing latency from 200 to 50 ms in the case of one message may seem a little gain. But when we have a lot of data, this time may be accumulated to several seconds or even minutes. Such a delay can have a crucial importance when something goes wrong with a patient, such as a falling blood oxygen level. Thus modern networking technology could help save lives.
The growing importance of networking solutions has not escaped the attention of big players. Several recent acquisitions attest to the renewed interest big tech companies are taking in computer networking.
In April 2020, nVidia completed its acquisition of Mellanox, a provider of end-to-end high-speed Ethernet and InfiniBand interconnect solutions. In May 2020, they also announced their plans to buy Cumulus Networks, a software provider of Ethernet switching solutions for the accelerated data center. nVidia’s is usually associated with GPUs, but the company also offers data center solutions. Thanks to these two acquisitions, nVidia will have all the capabilities it needs to help enterprises build high-performance data centers.
This trend is also visible on the SD-WAN market, which has been consolidating for the past several years, as networking companies have been actively looking to add new capabilities to their WAN portfolio. Only in 2020 did we witness several major acquisitions. Hewlett Packard Enterprise acquired SD-WAN provider Silver Peak, Ericsson bought out Cradlepoint, a US-based provider of Wireless WAN Edge 4G and 5G solutions for the enterprise market, and cybersecurity powerhouse Palo Alto Networks scooped up CloudGenix, a cloud-delivered SD-WAN provider.
Microsoft is also boldly investing in networking technology, seeking to expand its portfolio of edge cloud technology, which plays a crucial role in the 5G expansion. In March 2020, it acquired 5G specialist Affirmed Networks then just a month later announced a definitive agreement to buy Metaswitch Networks, a provider of cloud-native communications software.
5G expansion is definitely what we can expect in 2021. The pandemic has kept people at home, relying on the Internet for work, school and entertainment. At the same time, too few notebooks and PCs were available to meet the needs of all household members. To solve this dilemma, they started using every mobile device with Internet access available at home. Many people left their cities for more rural areas, where they depended exclusively on LTE networks to power their online mobile devices.Wireless traffic exploded. Adding more wireless capacity 5G will help tackle this challenge.
Thanks to high speed connection and lower latency, this technology is also the backbone for implementing IoT networks and autonomous vehicles. In the US, various carriers are developing their 5G infrastructure. For example, AT&T says its 5G network extends to 355 cities, while the Verizon 5G millimeter-wave network is available in 45 cities with 60 more to be added by the end of the year.
Given all this evidence, it is safe to say that the year to come will see even more focus on providing high-performance connectivity solutions, like 5G, for enterprises and end-users alike. For the time being, the COVID-19 pandemic is in full swing and it is hard to predict when it will actually be over. No wonder companies are flexing their muscles to provide effective networking solutions for an increasingly online-dependent world.
Clearly, 2021 is going to be an interesting year, minus the irony of the Chinese proverb with which I began this post. It will be an interesting time, as computer networking technology has an important role to play in the world's fight against coronavirus and in the digital transformation of companies the globe over: from ensuring secure access to remote workplaces, to coping with increasing Internet traffic and helping fight the coronavirus itself.