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Why the internet backbone didn't bend to the pandemic

The backbone is under stress from streaming video, but it's healthy and is expected to remain so.

The COVID outbreak of early 2020 sprang a surprise on all of us, but especially on the internet. All of a sudden, remote access multiplied and video traffic spiked. It could have been a recipe for chaos, but it wasn't. The flexibility and resiliency that's built into the internet held up. But whether the global network of networks passed the test with flying colors depends on whom you ask.

"The internet was one of the heroes of the pandemic. It enabled people to work from home," says Bob Laliberte, principal analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group. Another analyst, meanwhile, says surviving the unprecedented shifts in traffic was a much closer call. "The internet is barely meeting needs. COVID-19 caused people to work from home and connect through the internet. That put a lot of pressure on the backbone," says Ajeet Das, research director for telecom infrastructure at IDC.

One point on which no one disagrees is that streaming video traffic, both on demand and live, is increasing relentlessly and as it does, the structural elements of the internet are evolving to meet the new demands. Content delivery networks (CDNs), backbone switch upgrades, hyperscaler networks, and fiber buildouts are each playing an important role.

The video challenge

It's not just all those Zoom calls that are eating up bandwidth. People stopped going to theaters to see movies. DVDs and, to a lesser extent, cable are dying as alternatives, so a huge percentage of entertainment video, as well as gaming, has moved to the internet proper. The numbers are staggering.

"Looking back at 2019, there were 73 billion minutes streamed every week. Now, we're near 200 billion minutes streamed per week," says Brian Fuhrer, senior vice president of product strategy at Nielsen. Streaming video accounted for 33 percent of all video traffic during the week of Christmas 2021, the highest share ever, according to Fuhrer. "The weather is cold and people are streaming more now. Over time, we'll see more consumption migrating to IP versus cable," he says.

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As video traffic across the internet increases, intelligence built into networks is managing traffic to match the available bandwidth, according to Fuhrer. For example, he says, the network can detect a video consumer's bandwidth and determine whether it can handle HD video. If not, the content is throttled back to non-HD. "Advanced streamers automatically sense the bandwidth and send the right version of the video down," he says.

CDNs respond

Much network intelligence is to be found in CDNs. By caching and routing video traffic close to local demand, CDNs such as Akamai, Cloudflare, and Amazon Web Services' CloudFront keep video traffic from ever reaching, and clogging, internet backbone switches. Netflix built its own CDN well before the pandemic.

"CDNs provided a very important safety valve that enabled us to get through the pandemic," says Ghassan Abdo, research vice president for telecommunications at IDC. Total revenue for the worldwide CDN market was projected to reach $10.3 billion in 2021, representing an increase of 20 percent from 2020, according to IDC. The research firm forecasts the market will increase to $18.9 billion in 2025.

In addition to caching video close to where it is being consumed, CDNs also handle e-commerce and gaming traffic, both of which saw elevated levels during the pandemic, Abdo notes. He also predicts that streamed video traffic over CDNs will only increase, as consumers become accustomed to accessing live events from their living room TVs or smartphones.

In addition to taking on increased video traffic, CDN providers such as Akamai are augmenting their services with security capabilities that implement Secure Access Service Edge (SASE) principles, a blueprint developed by Gartner. Laliberte says implementing SASE capabilities in a CDN is logical in that it brings the security tasks closer to the user so the impact on network performance is minimized.

Backbone switches grow

Because network intelligence and CDNs are relieving significant pressure from tier-one internet backbone switches, change at that level is gradual but steady. "The core routing market has been $3 billion to $3.5 billion per year for the last five to six years. It's very stable, with 30 percent to 40 percent incremental capacity being added every year," says Shin Umeda, vice president of Dell'Oro Group. In the U.S., most backbone switches handle traffic at 100 Gbps or 400 Gbps, although upgrades to 800 Gbps are on the horizon.

Please read: 5G and cloud: Telcos fight for the future

"As more video is consumed, it's more about the access infrastructure, such as fiber to the home, that has to be sufficient to deliver that content. The backbone is not largely affected. That was proven during the pandemic," says Umeda. "Billions of people were stuck at home. Their primary source of entertainment came from their broadband connections. There was very little if any increase in [backbone] equipment purchases to address that.

"The operators' networks are efficient and have enough redundancy to absorb peak traffic surges," he adds. "The backbones easily handled the spike due to the pandemic."

Hyperscalers help

Another factor that increases the resilience of the public internet is the emergence of hyperscaler networks. AWS, Microsoft Azure, and Google Cloud all carry vast amounts of traffic and all implement sophisticated architectures punctuated with advanced intelligence to route different traffic types optimally across the globe. "The growth of the hyperscaler backbones have provided relief to telecom carriers. They are as large as the tier-one providers, although we don't realize it," says Umeda. Microsoft's Azure cloud consists of 60 global regions, 220 data centers, 170 edge sites, and 165,000 miles of fiber, according to Microsoft.

In addition to handling large quantities of data, hyperscalers sell CDN services to others. AWS, for example, sells CloudFront CDN services to others while also using CloudFront for its Prime Video service and Amazon e-commerce transactions, according to IDC's Abdo. Meanwhile, Microsoft resells Akamai CDN services and Verizon offers its Edgecast CDN service to customers.

Fiber buildout coming

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, signed into law by President Biden in November 2021, includes $65 billion to boost broadband in the U. S. Included in the bill is $42 billion in the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment program, which will send money to states to underwrite broadband where it doesn't yet exist. Another $14.2 billion in broadband subsidies for low-income Americans is included. Earlier in the year, the Biden administration's Emergency Broadband Benefit program allocated $3.2 billion to subsidize high-speed internet service to needy citizens.

Please read: Inside the new federal broadband fund: What will $65 billion actually buy?

"Biden's infrastructure bill is largely about providing broadband connectivity to rural and underserved areas, but I am sure that some part of the capital investment will also be used for upgrading the internet backbone to support thousands of new residential and enterprise subscribers," says IDC's Das.

Residential pockets with uneven video quality should see a difference. "As fiber buildouts increase, picture quality will naturally improve. When the fiber gets to the house, the picture quality will rival what cable delivers," says Nielsen's Fuhrer.

While the additional capacity will no doubt be welcome to those lacking high-speed links, there is no urgency for universal upgrades everywhere, according to Umeda. "The internet's underlying fiber network has sufficient capacity to support traffic growth," he says. "The optical transport equipment market, which can be used as a proxy for backbone fiber capacity, has grown at rates that support traffic growth estimates."

As traffic of all kinds increases, particularly for live and on-demand streaming video, expect to see what Umeda calls the inversion of infrastructure, meaning a continued departure from hierarchical networks and greater reliance on high-capacity networks in metropolitan areas. "It's routing intelligence that makes this possible," says Umeda. "At a very granular level, it can determine the type of packet and where it might go, based on a certain service that someone is paying for."

Although global crises of the future are beyond prediction, the internet will certainly face increases in traffic, particularly video, which it will meet with enlarged capacity and greater routing intelligence. The internet's ability to handle the shock of the COVID-19 pandemic should be cause for confidence. Says Das, "The network was under stress under COVID, but it did not go out."

This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.