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Would the bird flu kill the Internet, too?

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  • Would the bird flu kill the Internet, too?

    Telecommuters could overwhelm the network, some say

    By Lamont Wood (Computerworld)

    June 28, 2006 -- If a bird flu pandemic sweeps the nation, we could avoid infection by working from home via the Internet.

    Or, hammered by overuse, the Internet could shut down within two to four days of an outbreak, eliminating telecommuting as a viable option.

    Disturbingly, that was one finding of a simulation, or war game, held in January in Davos, Switzerland, by the World Economic Forum and management consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton Inc. More than 30 senior industry and governmental executives played out the arrival of the flu in Germany from Eastern Europe -- and the results weren't pretty.

    "We assumed total absentees of 30% to 60% trying to work from home, which would have overwhelmed the Internet," said participant Bill Thoet, vice president of Booz Allen Hamilton. "We did not assume that the backbone would be gone, but that the edge of the network, where everyone was trying to access their office from home, would be overwhelmed. The absence of maintenance was also a factor. The person who brought up the problem was himself a CEO of an Internet service provider.

    "The conclusion [of imminent collapse] was not absolute, and the situation was not digitally simulated, but the idea of everyone working from home appears untenable," Thoet said.

    On this side of the Atlantic, predictions about how the Internet would fare in the face of a pandemic are less dire.

    "We don't believe that the Internet will be compromised within a matter of hours or days," said Brent Woodworth, worldwide manager for IBM's Crisis Response Team, which does consulting on disaster preparedness. "Most Internet traffic is reroutable, and as different areas are affected at different rates by a pandemic, the networks could anticipate increased traffic and adjust accordingly -- with the caveat that critical components will be maintained."

    Besides, mass telecommuting in the face of a pandemic would just accelerate a trend that has been under way for a decade, said Verizon Communications Inc. spokesman Mark Marchand in Basking Ridge, N.J. Voice and data traffic have both been shifting to the suburbs, and the carriers have been re-engineering their networks to follow it, he said. Marchand referred to the strike of the New York City transit workers just before Christmas last year (see "IT aids New Yorkers during transit strike") . "A lot of people worked from home and the network handled it," he recalled.

    "If we were having this conversation 10 years ago, I would have had to say that mass telecommuting was not an option," he added. "But remember, we just handle access -- after you get on the Internet, that's another question."

    Within the Internet, there could indeed be problems, agreed Paul Froutan, vice president of research and development at Rackspace Managed Hosting Ltd., a large Web-hosting company in San Antonio. "A large company has large amounts of data traffic that never leaves the office," he noted. "If you send people home to do the same work remotely, that could cause a problem."


  • #2
    Re: Would the bird flu kill the Internet, too?

    Computerworld covers a range of technology topics, with a focus on these core areas of IT: Windows, Mobile, Apple/enterprise, Office and productivity suites, collaboration, web browsers and blockchain, as well as relevant information about companies such as Microsoft, Apple and Google.

    Flu pandemic could choke Internet, requiring usage restrictions
    Expected surge in online traffic puts telework plans at risk
    Patrick Thibodeau

    February 12, 2007 (Computerworld) -- Many companies and government agencies are counting on legions of teleworkers to keep their operations running in the event of an influenza pandemic. But those plans may quickly run aground as millions of people turn to the Internet for news and even entertainment, potentially producing a bandwidth-choking surge in online traffic.

    Such a surge would almost certainly prompt calls to restrict or prioritize traffic, such as blocking video transmissions wherever possible, according to business continuity planners who gathered on Friday at a SunGard Availability Systems hot-site facility in northern New Jersey to consider the impact of a pandemic on the Internet.

    Businesses as well as home users likely would be asked to voluntarily restrict high-bandwidth traffic, the planners said. And if asking didn't work, they warned, government action to restrict traffic might well follow.

    "Is there a need for a YouTube during a national emergency?" asked John Thomas, vice president of enterprise systems at a large, New York-based financial institution that he asked not be identified.

    Whether the avian flu will morph into a human pandemic is unclear. But if it does, hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of deaths could result worldwide. To try to limit a pandemic's spread, many people will seek to work from home, either voluntarily or under government quarantine orders. Consequently, "the demand for communication will soar," said Renate Noone, vice president of professional services at SunGard's Availability Services unit.

    Businesses and government agencies are in the best position to deal with any online traffic surges, via the use of redundant communications systems and techniques such as diverse routing. But that may not help teleworkers or customers and business partners who are trying to access systems remotely, said Noone and other pandemic planners.

    "I think it's definitely the most vulnerable part of the equation," said Bernard O'Neill, vice president and chief network officer at Prudential Financial Inc., referring to the communications problems that teleworkers may face.

    For their most critical workers, employers can sign contracts with telecommunications services providers for business-class services, such as dedicated lines. Companies may balk at paying for such services to prepare for a problem that may never occur, but waiting could be a risky strategy. For instance, if the World Health Organization raises its pandemic threat alert from the current level of stage 3 on the WHO's six-stage scale, demand for backup communications services could outstrip the ability of vendors to provide them, said participants in Friday's daylong pandemic forum.

    Many of the people who attended the event have been hardened by experience and know how bad things can get in a disaster...


    • #3
      Re: Would the bird flu kill the Internet, too?

      Thanks for the post and bumping this thread, wdcare. I have not yet formulated an opinion about the stability of the internet during a pandemic. It will be true that people will be searching furiously for information on protecting themselves and their family. But I don't know that I believe that "telecommuting" will overwhelm the internet.

      Once a pandemic starts, how will telecommuting help stock empty shelves in a grocery store, fix downed telephone poles and power lines, treat fresh water and waste water at municipal facilities, deliver diesel and gas to service stations? Doctors, nurses, and HCW will not be able to telecommute, only employees in the information services industries will be able to do it. But how much of the information services sector will be needed once we are deep into a pandemic?

      I think that almost all the cost-effective telecommuting that can be done, has already been implemented. In a pandemic, people will obviously want to avoid social contact and shelter in place. But, how many people that will want to telecommute will actually be doing productive work if they can sign on to a company intranet? It really depends on the nature of the services and products of a particular company.

      So, I do think that the internet will be overwhelmed by users during a pandemic, whether they will be tying into their employers and being productive is a different question. The internet, even if it stays up, will not protect us or keep our JIT economy moving. We are going to need people on the ground doing the physical tasks of production and distribution, just as they have always done. Telecommuting won't save us.


      • #4
        Re: Would the bird flu kill the Internet, too?

        The internet per se is not the problem, the problem is that if the electric grid starts to fail over wide areas, the internet will immediately begin to suffer. The backbone has a good chance of suriviving long outages of power, but after a week or so, it may even be very difficult to get fuel for those generators, much less the smaller nodes. The simulation done in the Booz Allen study basically shows nearly all services kaput after 28 days, that includes, electric, water, telecommunications, food supply, broadcast, energy production, etc. Not a pretty picture. AS long as power is up, then the internet may be slow, but functional as long as they can maintain critical pieces. If there are widespread power outages for long periods, then all bets are off.