Amid the COVID-19 outbreak, governments and enterprises are pushing for a massive shift to work-from-home operations wherever possible. As a result, millions of people are relying on video communications to collaborate with colleagues, which drives up internet traffic. To support this surge in video meetings, enterprise networks have to cope with sudden jumps in traffic associated with video conferencing and collaboration software.
Fortunately, in response to several trends, IT has been moving for years to address a rise in video traffic. The first trend is the steady adoption of cloud computing. Last year, for the first time, the majority of the average company's IT workloads were running in one cloud or another. Only 40% of workloads remained in the company data centers.
The second trend is the rising number of users reaching company services through the internet. Even before the coronavirus crisis, remote work was on the rise. Internet-only branch offices, for example, account for one-quarter of all sites now, and that percentage will rise sharply over the next two years.
The third trend already pushing WAN staff to prepare for a significant increase in conferencing and internet traffic -- like what COVID-19 is driving -- is the steady shift to cloud-based unified communications (UC) and collaboration tools. Already, 49% of organizations are using a cloud-based UC service.
Dealing with an uptick in external traffic
As a result of these trends and others, the average enterprise already has 63% of network traffic coming from or heading to an external entity, including 17% that starts from an external source and hits an external destination -- also known as outside-to-outside traffic.
That said, enterprises do need to deal with a sudden and sustained upswing in this kind of traffic. Even if their networks were trending toward this being the norm, they mostly weren't there yet.
In order to tackle this issue, network managers need to think in terms of access, performance and security.
Upgrade connectivity, adjust bandwidth, assess bottlenecks
On the access side, network managers are likely to face congestion issues at internet access points, where conferencing client traffic enters and exits. Enterprises that have dynamic connectivity for their internet links should have seen rapid ramping up of usage and should prepare leadership to pay for the new normal level for at least the next month and possibly longer. Also, expect future upswings in the likely event of later work-from-home periods.
Where connectivity is not dynamic but the underlying connectivity and customer premises equipment (CPE) can deliver at a higher speed, organizations should plan to upgrade the service -- many will have been planning this anyway. There likely isn't time for upgrades to wired links or CPE during the current crisis. So, as the pandemic continues, organizations should explore how to migrate to upgradable and dynamic connectivity. Organizations with software-defined WAN (SD-WAN) can look at options for adding capacity quickly, ranging from plugging in available broadband to using 4G/LTE or 5G wireless data services.
On the performance management side, WAN engineers will have to wield every technology they have -- from WAN optimizers and internet traffic managers to MPLS service tiering and SD-WAN -- to favor conferencing traffic further relative to best-effort-is-good-enough traffic.
While the evolution of conferencing tools has been a boon for network traffic management, the newest generation of tools can still perform with less bandwidth and less reliable connectivity. Nevertheless, IT will want to increase the priority, lower the bandwidth floor and raise the bandwidth ceilings associated with conferencing traffic -- and do the opposite for other kinds of traffic.
The last issue to address is security. The network team will have to wrestle with the problem of chokepoint security appliances, like firewalls and VPN gateways, hitting their limits for throughput or active sessions.
IT teams will have to choose a path: Avoid, expand or limit.
- They can avoid the congestion by bypassing the appliance for some kinds of traffic; this may not be allowable, though, or it might add too much risk.
- They can expand security capacity by spinning up virtual firewalls temporarily or using a cloud-based firewall for some traffic. Or, if they have an SD-WAN with firewall functionality, they can use that and exploit direct internet access from every location.
- Or they can explain to leadership that the network simply can't handle the traffic and present a choice: Invest to get to technologies that will let them deal with such problems, or limit the business to the capacity of the existing services. It's not the best conversation to have, but it's unavoidable in some cases.
WAN teams can take these concrete steps to improve their organizations' ability to shift to remote collaboration technologies now and for the duration of the pandemic. Although the need to address these management, security and architectural issues is urgent, the needs of the moment are also aligned with the longer-term evolution of the enterprise WAN.
So, meeting these needs won't sidetrack the enterprise WAN; it will simply speed up its transition to its next generation.