Many technology companies have been contributing in whatever ways they can to help as the world struggles with the COVID-19 pandemic. That includes companies that provide infrastructure that supports digital services people are now relying on more than ever before.
Providers of VPN services, password management tools, software development platforms, cloud storage, and many other types of technology services essential for doing business online, have either made their services free or available at substantially lower costs for organizations in need.
Some of the big companies further down “the stack,” operators of data centers and interconnection platforms, are trying to make it easier for networks to boost interconnection.
To make sure their systems can handle the flood of users, organizations have had to beef up their computing capacity and capacity of the links that connect their networks with networks of service providers, be they ISPs, cloud infrastructure providers, or cloud software providers like Zoom or Microsoft.
For example, there’s been a 775 percent increase in users of Microsoft’s Teams video conferencing service in Italy over a one-month period, the company said. Globally, Microsoft has seen “a very significant spike in Teams usage,” while Windows Virtual Desktop usage has tripled as a result of the pandemic.
To help the most essential organizations scale their capacity to meet the demand, some of the largest data center and interconnection platform operators said they wouldn’t charge those organizations certain fees associated with using their platforms.
Relieving the Cost of Interconnection
Global data center operator Equinix has been “donating” its ECX Fabric (Cloud Exchange), Internet Exchange, and “other interconnection services” to healthcare organizations, education, government, food supply chains, COVID-19 research, NGOs, and other “qualifying organizations seeking to support the greater good through this pandemic,” a company spokesperson said in an emailed statement.
Megaport, which operates a software-defined global data center interconnection platform that’s functionally similar to ECX, said it was waiving port fees for emergency services, education, healthcare, government organizations, and private enterprises that provide essential services for six months starting last week.
Digital Realty Trust, Equinix’s biggest rival, which uses partner Megaport’s platform to offer interconnection services on its Service Exchange, said it was doing the same.
ECX is also a software-defined interconnection platform, which means Equinix customers can provision links between their platforms virtually, without having someone physically plug cables inside a data center meet-me room.
ECX is only for networks present inside Equinix data centers, while Megaport’s platform extends across many different data center providers around the world and all the customers using their services.
Reducing the cost of patching into hyperscale platforms through private links like AWS Direct Connect or Azure ExpressRoute can be helpful from a cost perspective, Archana Kesavan, director of product marketing at ThousandEyes, told DCK. ThousandEyes monitors global network health and has been sharing how the internet has been holding up through the crisis on its blog.
“That definitely has legs,” she said about the data center providers’ move to reduce interconnection costs. “I feel that could actually help these organizations.”
The people responsible for technical infrastructure have been fortunate that the technology that enables software-defined interconnection platforms like ECX, Megaport, and PacketFabric has evolved as much as it has in recent years, Avi Freedman, co-founder and CEO of Kentik, which also monitors network health, pointed out.
If you need to provision a cross-connect to Zoom, for instance, you can do it from home using a web portal or an API. That ability has been “a key part of scaling” network capacity these days, Freedman said, when travel is greatly restricted and physical access to data centers is either prohibited or reduced to essential personnel only.
Zoom itself has been relying on ECX in recent weeks to peer with new partners or provision more data transit capacity, Alex Guerrero, who oversees all things infrastructure at Zoom, said during a recent webinar organized by Kentik. Zoom has been using ECX “quite a bit actually to increase bandwidth across the board,” he said.
While waiving port fees for essential organizations, Megaport and Digital Realty will still charge them for the bandwidth they use to transfer data over the fabric. But the savings would still be substantial.
A 10-Gigabit-per-second port normally costs $500 per month, Eric Troyer, Megaport’s chief marketing officer, told us. If you want to use the fabric to connect two data centers, you have to pay port fees for both ends of the connection. If you want to connect to a Megaport partner like Azure or AWS, however, you only pay for one port, he explained.
Equinix is waiving "most costs" of using ECX, according to a company spokesperson, including bandwidth fees. It won't charge qualifying organizations port fees, installation and "expedite" fees, or early termination fees, the spokesperson said. The fees will be waived for four months, after which the servie will roll into standard pricing, if the customer doesn't cancel it by taking advantage of the waived early termination fees.
The Use Cases Driving Up Interconnection
In recent weeks, as the world grapples with the pandemic, the surge in usage of Megaport’s platform has been driven predominantly by three use cases, Troyer said: connectivity to cloud platforms with the purpose of scaling up virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI), connectivity to internet exchanges, and connectivity between field offices.
Many organizations now have to support many more remote workers than ever before, and cloud-based VDI services are one of the logical ways to do that.
More users connecting to their employers’ networks from home, more students using online education portals or video conferencing for learning, and everyone consuming more entertainment online while stuck at home are driving traffic on internet exchanges to unprecedented levels.
DE-CIX, one of the world’s largest internet exchanges, said last week that it was seeing a 100 percent increase in video conferencing traffic at its location in Frankfurt from the week before, a 50 percent increase in CDN traffic, and a doubling of the number of online and cloud gaming users. Traffic in DE-CIX locations in Hamburg, Dubai, and Madrid was also up substantially, the company said.
Another major exchange operator, AMS-IX, said last week that peak traffic on its platform had for the first time broken through the 8-Terabits-per-second barrier on the evening of March 30. The daily volume of data traveling through the exchange went from about 50 petabytes in February to close to 60 petabytes after March 11, when the World Health Organization declared that the COVID-19 outbreak was a pandemic.
As organizations scale up infrastructure to support a more distributed workforce, they have been increasing bandwidth on their connections to internet exchanges, many of them using platforms like Megaport’s to do it.
The newly distributed workforce is also relying on connections to organizations’ regional field offices more than ever before. To support them, enterprise IT shops have been beefing up connections between those field offices to better replicate data between the locations, Troyer said.
The free connections to Megaport’s fabric are available not only to organizations that fall into the emergency services, healthcare, education, and government buckets but to all organizations “that are making an impact through the COVID pandemic: organizations that are involved in providing relief and efforts to mitigate, treat, and support people through the crisis,” he said.
-- Updated on 4/7/20 with more details about Equinix's approach to waiving ECX fees