Flu-Stricken Home Workers Could Bring Internet Down

Residential networks will struggle if a flu pandemic causes thousands of staff to work from home, warn analysts

Residential broadband infrastructure is not capable of handling the massive flood of remote workers that would accompany any escalation in the swine-flu pandemic according to analyst Gartner.

Businesses may need to re-think remote working strategies in the event of a serious pandemic, as residential internet networks do not have the bandwidth to cope with a spike in demand, Gartner warns in a report issued this week, “Rethink Work-at-Home Strategies for Pandemic Preparedness: Internet Bandwidth Supply Won’t Meet Demand“,

Although network operators claim that the main broadband backbone could cope with a massive increase in users working from home, Gartner said that “the edge” or “the last mile” of networks could be a source of problems.

“All of the telecommunications carriers say their wide area networks (WANs) can handle the added capacity of a 40 percent increase. That’s fine for their backbone network, but the problem lies in what is referred to as the “edge” or “last mile” in the residential Internet access loop,” said Eric Paulak, managing vice president at Gartner. “Within the switching office, surges in demand will overload the local connection to the backbone networks, because carriers typically do not design for excess residential capacity.”

Although some of Gartner’s predictions appear to be based on conditions in the US, at least some of the analysts’ concerns are applicable to the UK. Commenting on the Gartner report, a spokesperson for BT said that its networks infrastructure should be able to cope with the impact of a pandemic and that companies should focus on making sure their own business continuity plans are in place.

“BT’s network is in a strong position to cope with the expected demands in home working,” the spokesman said. “What IT managers in other companies need to check is whether they have all the things they need in place to ensure that their own staff can work from home and access their organisation’s computing systems in a secure and timely manner.”

But recent reports that actual residential broadband capacity in the UK is substantially less than that advertised by network operators could raise concerns about whether networks could succumb to the problems highlighted by Gartner. In July, UK telecom regulator Ofcom released a report which revealed that average broadband speed users get is 4Mbps, while most popular services promise speeds “up to” 8Mbps. Cable came out ahead – for those who can get it – and the report noted that speeds were increasing – the average was only 3.6Mbps in January.

One back-up being proposed by businesses is using wireless 3G networks as an alternative access route but Gartner believes that this could simply move the problem from network to another and cause a similar breakdown in mobile broadband.

“The bottom line is that the last-mile DSL and cable modem networks are where remote access falls apart. Backbones will be affected, but the network edge will crash. The carriers are encouraging organisations to use third-generation (3G) or other nontethered access as a backup/emergency solution to defend against these last-mile failures. However, this solution could lead to wireless system overload, so the problem is not solved, it is merely moved,” said John Girard, vice president and distinguished analyst at Gartner. “Therefore, enterprises need to consider all three Internet access solutions when trying to work out what performs best in a given emergency situation.”

Earlier this week, analysts warned that pandemics aside, growing demand for mobile broadband will stretch mobile networks to the limit with data traffic set to increase 25 fold by 2012.

Gartner added that the problem with residential networks could be exacerbated by children being at home too which mean that remote business use would add to existing traffic and risk overloading systems. “The problem arises during an emergency, such as a pandemic, because consumer Internet usage will be happening at the same time as WAH usage, mainly because children will be home from school (who drive the bandwidth ratios today) and, therefore, using the Internet as they would during the evening,” Gartner said.

According to Gartner, the best strategy for companies to adopt is to have as many back-up plans as possible in place to cope with network problems for remote workers. “The impact is that all the WAH strategies being implemented by organisations will likely not work,” said Roberta Witty, research vice president at Gartner. “Therefore organisations need to set up a variety of strategies for WAH including pandemic and WAH impact planning in all negotiations with network service providers, deciding in advance which business operations require heavy Internet usage and possibly staggering hours of operation to increase the chance of getting the needed bandwidth.”

The advice given by Gartner on how best to respond to network problems in the event of a serious pandemic include:

  • When employees are forced to work from home, they lose the benefits provided by their office WAN optimisation controller (WOC). Some organisations are deploying software WOC client software on every laptop to help mitigate the bandwidth and latency issues. On a congested network, a SoftWOC can make the most of the little bandwidth available with 80 to 90 percent reductions for many applications.
  • If it’s only necessary to accelerate browser-based applications, or if software cannot be installed on an employee’s home computer, a second solution is to use client applets that work with data-centre-resident application delivery controllers or WOCs. “These browser applets are zero-footprint installations (ActiveX or JavaScript) that can significantly reduce bandwidth and latency-induced performance problems and may be enough to make some employees productive,” said Joe Skorupa, research vice president at Gartner
  • A third solution is to bypass the wired last mile altogether and switch to a wireless connection, such as 3G or WiMAX, or satellite. In contrast to these wireless offerings, new or expanded wired broadband services can take weeks to deliver under normal circumstances. However, while last-mile bypass may fix the access network problem, it won’t fix the common latency-induced problems that arise during surges of unplanned emergency access. In an emergency, always assume that wireless services will be oversubscribed.

Earlier in the year, fears of a swine flu pandemic were apparently heightened by social networking sites such as Twitter. While public fears are now less acute, many cases are expected. Google has used its tools to track the illness.