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Network traffic pattern shifts reflect COVID-19 changes

The novel coronavirus pandemic spurred initial changes in network traffic patterns, but other trends are playing important roles in perpetuating permanent traffic shifts.

The current coronavirus pandemic crisis will alter network traffic patterns and accelerate underlying trends toward wireless, mobile and cloud-based systems. Already, we have seen a surge in remote access and core internet traffic, as well as a massive reduction in campus traffic, as the majority of the workforce is at home.

The reliance on work at home stresses the requirement for reliable, secure broadband service and potentially drives the growth of 4G/5G wireless as the primary or secondary link for distributed workers. The need for automated network operations has moved to the forefront as IT organizations stretch their resources to maintain nonstop operations of data center networks and WAN communications.

Fewer full-time employees in the office

The great work-at-home experiment is proving that most employees can be highly productive without being physically in the office. Doyle Research expects that work at home will become permanent for a certain percentage of the workforce that is ideally suited for it due to commute length, family situation or type of work -- e.g., remote call centers. Another large percentage of workers will continue to work in an office but will choose to work one or two days a week at home to complete time-sensitive projects or to fit their work-life balance.

The migration to distributed work in the U.S. will likely triple the number of days employees work at home. It will also significantly decrease the amount of traffic -- or reduce traffic growth -- in the campus network. This should cause IT and network operations teams to consider delaying potential upgrades to campus networks.

Growth in the internet core

Industry sources indicate that internet core traffic has grown approximately 25% during 2020. The resiliency of internet and telecom architectures -- which place a premium on reliability, including provisioning over capacity -- has largely been able to handle this traffic surge. Over time, internet service providers will continue to increase fiber and core routing capacity to stay ahead of demands, such as the huge growth in video. This may encourage providers to evaluate new converged optical/routing and software routing designs.

trends changing network traffic patterns
These seven trends are continuing to drive major shifts in network traffic patterns.

Accelerated migration of applications to the cloud

The challenges of updating current and creating new applications in the private cloud, which is hosted in an organization's data center, is driving more investment to SaaS and public cloud-based applications. In the long run, this will continue to reduce the need to upgrade internal data center networks. In the near term, service providers are rapidly upgrading internet-to-cloud transit capabilities to accelerate remote access to cloud-based applications.

Importance of the home office network

The ability to support a large number of distributed employees that need to securely access critical applications and data is now a top priority for most IT organizations. In the short term, IT is upgrading the tools it has, such as VPNs, to handle this surge. Over time, IT should evaluate new tools to integrate remote access into its comprehensive networking and security architecture, considering options like Secure Access Service Edge. Potential options include all-in-one appliances with Wi-Fi, security, software-defined WAN (SD-WAN), routing and optional 4G/5G. These appliances are being introduced by Wi-Fi, network security and SD-WAN suppliers but tend to be expensive, especially for broad deployments.

Significance of 4G LTE and 5G

The increased coverage and high speeds of 4G LTE make it an attractive option for home and branch office connectivity. Many operators now offer data plans with attractive pricing, such as unlimited data. The stress on home broadband circuits, especially with the entire household on video calls, affects productivity for many employees. IT organizations should consider business-sponsored wireless data plans for key employees. The combination of broadband and 4G/5G with SD-WAN technology to adjust traffic flows can enable IT to maintain excellent UX for critical applications and users.

Campus LAN: Changing requirements

In addition to reducing the amount of traffic on the campus network, new office workspace requirements will affect the network. For example, organizations will see more employees coming to temporary office spaces and more adds, moves and changes due to the need to spread out tight working environments. The campus network will, over time, become mobile- and Wi-Fi-centric, with the need to be agile in terms of the number of connections and potential traffic surges with specific events that bring all employees into the office.

The COVID-19 situation highlights the requirements for IT to deliver a reliable, secure and high-performance network.

Push for automation

The current pandemic situation emphasizes the requirement for network agility -- the ability to adjust the network to changing traffic conditions. It also highlights the nonstop reliability requirements of the network to deliver quality UX. IT teams need to continue to migrate from manual operations to automated tools to enable them to remotely see network conditions, mitigate any security concerns, and adjust network traffic and application priorities. IT organizations will likely invest in new automation tools from small and large network suppliers.

Plan for flexibility, agility and automation

The COVID-19 situation highlights the requirements for IT to deliver a reliable, secure and high-performance network. It also shows that network traffic patterns can shift significantly due to business and social conditions.

The events of 2020 are likely to permanently alter the corporate network environment with investments required in remote connectivity and a continued shift of applications to the cloud. Flexibility, agility and automation should be the key factors in longer-term network planning.

Next Steps

Remote work tests corporate pandemic plans

This was last published in June 2020

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