The unfolding COVID-19 crisis has been the most significant test of the world’s internet infrastructure to date. With employers and schools moving to remote environments, the expectation was that the expanded use of Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) tools like video conferencing would lead to crippling levels of web traffic. On top of that, experts anticipated the increase in internet use would prompt a corresponding rise in network attacks from cybercriminals. Many in the industry were concerned that the internet would not be able to sustain these unseen levels of duress.
Pandemic traffic and attack trends
We’ve certainly witnessed the predicted spikes in both web traffic and denial-of-service (DDOS) attacks. Neustar’s recent report, “Online Traffic and Cyber Attacks During COVID-19,” evaluated the volume of traffic and the impact of these at-home initiatives as the pandemic escalated, then examined specifically the impact of DDoS attacks on the network during the same timeframe. We saw a noticeable rise in traffic in mid-March, which correlates with the dates that businesses and U.S. schools began to implement stay-at-home policies. It was interesting to see how specific industries – and in some cases companies – saw sharper rises in traffic at different timeframes. Retail, for example, saw a sharp increase that quickly dropped off after its initial ramp up, while the travel industry dropped dramatically but saw signs of life again in mid-April. Streaming services saw an impressive initial jump then a gradual evening out as the pandemic continued.
Recognizing the rise in web traffic and the increasing vulnerability of a remote workforce, we expected an increase in cyberattacks. However none of us anticipated how dramatic that upturn would be. The overall number and severity of attacks was record setting. Neustar’s SOC mitigated more than double the number of attacks in Q1 2020 than in Q1 2019, and in Q2 2020, we mitigated one of the largest attacks in internet history, at 1.17 Tbps.
Instead of crumpling under the pressure of high volumes of traffic and cyberattacks as many feared it would, existing internet infrastructure has held its own. That has been made more impressive when considering the many other industries that stumbled in handling operational challenges brought on by the pandemic. Most notably, delivery services like UPS and FedEx, along with larger retailers like Amazon and Walmart, struggled as the shopping experience went completely online.
That’s not to say that things have been perfectly smooth. Internet service provider (ISP) outages have increased globally according to internet traffic watchers. There was also a noteworthy moment of internet fragility in mid-June when Sprint suffered nationwide outages severe enough to impact customers from other carriers. However, the trigger event was a fiber circuit failure from a third-party provider, meaning it had nothing to do with COVID-19 traffic patterns or attacks. Internet infrastructure has been durable enough to handle the unforeseeable rise in pandemic web traffic.
Lessons for IT leaders
Current internet infrastructure has weathered these unique circumstances well, but that shouldn’t imply that this resilience was easy to come by. It takes an immense amount of planning, training and excellence under pressure to make these complicated systems work seamlessly for the end user. There are three driving factors that have made this success possible.
- Network Planning
Providers built out networks to account for long-term demand projections, prioritizing specifications that will best protect against exceeding capacity. Many ISPs were even considering the potential demands a pandemic would put on internet infrastructure as long as a decade ago. Engineers were not only able to build systems that endure extreme surges in traffic, but could also implement solutions with multiple redundancies to handle unexpected failures. Corporate IT leaders should use the same approach and plan for increased capacity now, so you’ll be ready when your organization needs it.
- Traffic Monitoring
Advanced network monitoring tools give operators the ability to identify congestion and alleviate it by redirecting traffic to other paths. This has been made easier by growing artificial intelligence and automation capabilities, enabling network systems to quickly manage issues from sharp increases in traffic automatically. Organizations should consider implementing similar technology across their systems. To perform at their best, systems need to be able to anticipate when and where web traffic is coming from.
- Security Practices
In an increasingly connected world, the number of digital bad actors are growing in number and sophistication. That’s why the world’s internet infrastructure is designed to withstand the most extreme external attacks, and ISPs are investing constantly to improve those defenses. Digital assets are often an organization’s most critical resources, so protecting them from cybercriminals must always be the priority. Be vigilant in developing and deploying the security solutions that will keep your organization safe.
With the right practices, foresight and partners, today’s IT leaders can ensure that their organizations continue to operate through the most significant disruptions.