Flu-Related Telecommuting Could Clog Web Traffic, Feds Warn
Fears that the H1N1 flu pandemic could bring down the Internet may be overblown, but it's quite possible that some ISPs could succumb. Internet traffic patterns would be drastically altered if a huge number of people were to start working from home all at once, and there's no easy and obvious way for ISPs to manage those shifting loads.
10/29/09 2:22 PM PT
Talk of a flu pandemic has evolved into a bit of flu panic. Rumors fly as some people die and others deny. Much of this fevered buzz is on and around the Internet. The fear that the Internet itself will crash is growing.
The alarm is based on the presumption that as the flu spreads, so does the base of home telecommuters, placing such a burden on the Internet that the whole World Wide Web will topple. But is that fear a true possibility?
The U.S. government seems to think the scenario is not only possible, but probable.
Internet Failure, Homeland Insecurity
The Government Accountability Office issued a report this week warning that a bogged-down Internet could even be a matter of national security. The report officially recommends that the Department of Homeland Security should "work with other federal partners to determine if sufficient authority exists for one or more relevant agencies to take any contemplated actions to address Internet congestion."
The report was commissioned by House Energy and Commerce committee members who were worried about how the financial markets would deal with a potential Internet overload. In light of this specific concern, the report also recommends the Securities and Exchange Commission take steps to ensure that the financial markets can "withstand high absenteeism and have formally developed alternative strategies in the event that congestion limits teleworking effectiveness."
Internet Breathes Despite Flu
Once the GAO report hit cyberspace, people instantly misread the problem and rapidly misconstrued the risk.
"The Internet was designed from the start to operate reliably under almost any load," Lawrence G. Roberts, PhD, president and chairman of Anagran and one of three people credited with founding the Internet, told TechNewsWorld. Roberts is a recipient of the National Academy of Engineering's 2001 Draper Award, engineering's highest honor.
"The way the Internet works is that the predominant protocol, TCP, keeps going faster until the network becomes congested and then slows down, continually searching for the rate it can operate such that all traffic proceeds at the maximum capacity of the network," he explained.
"Thus, the Internet is extremely resilient to any surge of traffic and will always continue to work," Roberts assured.
As Internet traffic has continued to grow -- it now has more than one trillion times the traffic it had 40 years ago -- this stability has been maintained, Roberts said, "except for one short period in 1986 when TCP needed a small fix."
The impact of many additional home telecommuters would not be sufficient to cause any hiccup in Internet performance.
"It might cause some minor slowdown in the delivery of high-speed video, but the telecommuter would be able to work quite effectively," said Roberts. "They typically do not need video, but would use email, Web, and VoIP primarily. This kind of traffic does not heavily load the network. The Internet would easily adjust to support such a surge of traffic by slightly slowing down all traffic."
ISPs Choke Internet Access
While the Internet itself will continue to function without so much as a hiccup, Internet Service Providers (ISPs) could conceivably succumb to the flu.
"ISPs build and provision their networks based on average traffic loads, which can accommodate peaks which they may have estimated for 'normal' times," Jim Grogan, vice president of consulting and software product marketing at SunGard Availability Services, told TechNewsWorld. "In the face of a pandemic and a surge of remote/home workers, the network traffic patterns will be anything but normal."
The problem isn't in the technologies used by ISPs, but in how they built out their network facility. "It's all about bandwidth," said Nick Molinari, system builder and computer expert on JustAnswer.
"Since the U.S. had the Internet first, they have the oldest Internet backbone," hetold TechNewsWorld.
Older equipment is just part of the problem, however.
"Some ISPs, like Earthlink, have acquired smaller, regional ISPs and brought them into the fold," noted Anne P. Mitchell, chief executive officer of the Institute for Social Internet Public Policy and member of the California Bar's Committee on Cyberspace Law.
"These providers have created a bit of a patchwork network of smaller ISPs cobbled together under the umbrella of the primary ISP," Mitchell told TechNewsWorld, "and for people who are serviced still by those smaller regionals, there will always be greater service issues."
Like most answers to big problems, the fix is simple in theory but hard in practice.
"The main thing would be to modernize the infrastructure by migrating everything to fiber optics like the Netherlands and other countries where fiber optics are pretty much the norm," said Molinari. "Fiber optics gives everyone bandwidth cable modems can only dream of."
ISPs should expand bandwidth to prevent this problem scenario by "adding servers, switching to fiber optic networks -- maybe even implement a P2P-type model that splits the source to many computers rather than just a few servers," Molinari advised.
ISPs are unlikely to do anything anytime soon and certainly not in time to prevent problems in a flu season that is already upon us, observed Anagran's Roberts. "For an ISP to install sufficient new equipment and fiber to make an unplanned expansion would require at least three months and most likely six months. Given the large capital expense involved, this would also be very difficult for any ISP."
The only other option available to ISPs is to selectively control Internet traffic -- say, by stopping heavy video use, such as on YouTube, or by banning P2P sharing.
"Banning video sharing with P2P applications, most likely the largest use of the Internet, would not be likely to achieve anything since the use is already underground and no one is likely to stop doing it," said Roberts.
It would be considered commercially unfair to cut off sites like YouTube and essentially a breach of contract for ISPs to limit its customers' access to Web sites.
"The important point here is that the only fair way to deal with a new increased load on the Internet is for all users to slow down slightly, and that is automatic in the basic design of the Internet," said Roberts.
The Government Solution
As for the GAO report and its recommendations to DHS and the SEC, there is very little either agency can or will do.
"The Department of Homeland Security has little they can do in regard to Internet capacity issues since the infrastructure that makes up the Internet is largely privately owned," explained SunGard's Grogan.
"ISP available capacity for either fiber or coaxial-based connections is pretty much set for the current influenza season, which has already begun. At best, Homeland Security can continue to be ever vigilant to threats that would compromise this infrastructure, and should be prepared to respond quickly to any event that has the potential to compromise the Internet with malicious intent," he added.
Politics will also gnarl the lines.
"The capstone of the problem is that FCC regulations that govern the Internet are so antiquated that the only tool provided for these players is adding [resources]: Legally, ISPs aren't allowed to prioritize traffic!" Chris Nelson, IT Manager for Delivra, told TechNewsWorld. "Sure, the FCC can always grant temporary amnesty for companies that want to throttle traffic -- but who on Earth wants to make that call?!"
Homeland Security is ultimately responsible for the networks -- but only if a true "emergency" is declared.
"You can bet that Homeland Security will do everything in its power to force the FCC to make the call -- and the FCC will be doing everything it can to make Homeland Security do it," remarked Nelson. "Both organizations will be waiting for the GAO to determine who should make the call."
"Considering a rush order for a dedicated line from an ISP can take four weeks, I wonder how long a 'rush job' takes for the GAO?" he sighed.