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Cloudflare CEO and co-founder Matthew Prince S3studio/Getty Images
Cloudflare CEO and co-founder Matthew Prince

Will the Coronavirus Break the Internet? Highly Unlikely, Says Cloudflare

The internet infrastructure provider says there have been big traffic spikes, but nothing like the Superbowl.

The “social distancing” measures governments and companies have been taking in their attempts to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus have increased the amount of traffic on networks around the world, but not to the extent where there’s a risk of systems being overwhelmed, according to Cloudflare, which provides infrastructure for many online properties globally.

Outside of China (where Cloudflare operates but doesn’t have much visibility into internet traffic patterns), the biggest increase in traffic this week has been in Italy, Matthew Prince, Cloudflare co-founder and CEO, told Data Center Knowledge Thursday. Of all western countries, the virus hit Italy the hardest so far, causing the government to order offices, shops, venues, and schools to shut down nationwide, leaving only pharmacies and grocery stores open.

NOTE: Visit the Open for Business Hub for a list of technology companies helping small businesses by enabling remote work services free or at a substantial discount throughout this emergency period.

Prior to this week, Italy had seen an increase in traffic that was about in line with what Cloudflare was observing elsewhere around the world: between 8 and 20 percent higher than normal. Starting this week, however, when the country-wide quarantines were mandated, traffic increased about 30 percent, Prince said.

While steep, however, that increase is well short of what networks handle during big events.

“By and large, the Superbowl in the United States, or Eurovision in Europe, or the Olympics, or the World Cup, these all spike traffic higher that what we’re seeing here,” Prince said. Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks, which the company helps its clients absorb, cause traffic spikes that are “orders of magnitude” larger than anything caused by people relying more on their home internet connections as a result of the coronavirus, he said.

Cloudflare has visibility into global traffic patterns because one of the services it offers is helping companies deliver their content to end users by storing it (caching) in data centers located across 200 cities in more than 90 countries. It’s one of the largest providers of such services, known as “content delivery network,” or CDN.

If you visit one of its customers’ websites from home or office, that content is served to you from the closest Cloudflare location and not from the website owner’s data center, which could be hundreds or thousands of miles away.

“We sit in front of more than 10 percent of all websites, so we have a pretty representative sample of how traffic patterns change in response to events globally,” Prince explained.

South Korea was the first place where Cloudflare saw a coronavirus-related traffic impact, Prince said. The country has a very connected population and issued work-from-home recommendations relatively early.

“What we saw in South Korea was a modest increase in the total amount of consumption of internet services, where it went up about 8 percent,” Prince said.

In the US, internet traffic has been up 10 to 20 percent since the first week of February, when the first COVID-19 cases were reported in Seattle, according to Cloudflare.

If the virus spread in the US in a similar way it spread in Italy, and if more drastic measures were taken as a result, Prince said he didn’t anticipate the internet’s capacity in the country to be overwhelmed. “It’ll be a busy day, but I don’t think there’s anything that would make us uniquely concerned in terms of traffic,” he said.

Changes in Daily Trends

The more dramatic changes have been in how people use the internet and when, rather than the increase in overall traffic. For example, while it’s normal for traffic to spike in Seattle around 10 am local time, Cloudflare has been seeing traffic spikes both at 10 am and 10 pm since the first cases started being reported there and more people switched to working from home.

Around the US overall, ISP data has been showing a 13 percent increase in peak usage and peaks at 11 am, which doesn’t normally happen, according to Cloudflare.

Normally, traffic spikes come around 7:30 pm (in each time zone), driven by online streaming services, Prince said. “As regions have instituted work-from-home requirements or recommendations, you see that peak in internet traffic shift closer to the middle of the workday,” he said.

In Italy, the use of online chat services has been up 1.3 to 3 times the normal level, while the amount of video-streaming traffic Cloudflare is able to see has doubled. Visits to news websites in the country are up 30 to 60 percent, and online gaming is up 20 percent, the company said.

Italians are also not looking up sports results – particularly soccer – nearly as much this week as they normally do, Prince said. This type of traffic has been down about 85 percent, according to Cloudflare.

Can Slack Handle the Load?

As the use of web services by businesses increases, one obvious question is whether the computing infrastructure of companies that provide services like video conferencing has enough capacity to handle the workload increase.

Microsoft reportedly saw a 500 percent increase in use of its Teams collaboration software in China since the end of January, followed by big increases in other parts of the world. Zoom, the popular video conferencing software provider, is said to have experienced an increase as well.

Additionally, Microsoft and Zoom have both started offering some of their online collaboration services for free to help businesses that aren’t well set up for a remote workforce. Google and Slack have made similar announcements.

A spokesperson for Amazon Web Services, which provides much of the computing infrastructure for digital services of all stripes, including Zoom and Slack, said the company has taken steps to prepare for an increase in demand, but didn’t specify which steps.

“We have taken measures to prepare, and we are confident we will be able to meet customer demands for capacity in response to COVID-19,” the spokesperson said in an emailed statement.

Microsoft and Google did not respond to requests for comment.

Whether any individual service can handle a big shift in usage patterns depends on how each service is architected, Prince said. Some providers “may have individual challenges” as a result of the changes spurred by the pandemic, he said, but speaking purely in terms of the internet’s capacity to handle more traffic, there’s enough to handle a much higher increase than what’s been observed so far.

Business VPNs Overwhelmed

One problem many businesses are facing as a result of the shift to remote work is inability to connect remote workers to their private networks securely, Prince said. Businesses that aren’t set up for having many employees work remotely typically haven’t invested in a high-capacity VPN, or virtual private network, and firewall.

According to him, when businesses see their VPNs fail to handle the load increase, they do one of three things: simply turn off any restrictions and open their internal networks to the internet, so they can continue operating (the worst possible option); scramble to upgrade their VPN infrastructure, which can take a long time; or look for a cloud-based VPN and firewall solution.

Earlier this week, Cloudflare said it would offer its cloud VPN and firewall service to small businesses for free for at least the next six months. As the crisis worsened, however, on Thursday the company decided to open the offer to any business that needs it, Prince said, regardless of size.

Cloudflare also has set up an online hub called Open for Business, where businesses can find a variety of free or substantially discounted services by multiple companies they can use for the duration of the coronavirus emergency.

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