A look at how COVID-19 is impacting web traffic

COVID-19 is impacting virtually every business and individual all around the world, with shifts towards self-isolation and working from home. We take a look at the impact this has had on web traffic globally.

The novel coronavirus is having a fundamental impact on most industries and day to day lives of many people. As the organisations that do have some semblance of business-as-usual move further towards remote working, strategic investments in a wide variety of digital assets are becoming key to survival.

Digital services and infrastructure are not only allowing businesses to stay afloat, but they are also facilitating growth and alternative modes of income, as many companies pivot sales and product goalposts via digital channels in order to accommodate the adjusted demand of customers within a variety of industries. In essence, digital is becoming central to sales strategy and business survival.

Of course, all of this is creating serious concerns over whether the physical networking infrastructure will be able to keep up with the increased burden of traffic. Network operators all around the world have reported massive upticks in their broadband usage, with short-term spikes that would ordinarily be expected over the course of a year. Vodafone, for instance, outlined a five-point plan of how it plans to manage the increased load, citing an expectation of a 50% increase in traffic in some markets up until this point.

A wide variety of digital and cloud platform providers have also reported massive increases in the stress being applied to their services, with services such as Zoom and Slack experiencing record user growth around the world. Microsoft have also said that they have noticed huge spikes across its cloud ecosystem, with one particular surge of around 775% for its Teams service in Italy.

All of these pivoting digital dependencies, as you might expect, have also coincided with a corresponding, equally sharp shift in the general flow of web traffic, both in regard to where connections are being made and the industries within which the traffic is flowing. We take a look at data from Cloudflare and Imperva to assess the significance of these changes.

Traffic moving out of metros

One of the more obvious observable trends around web traffic is that it is decentralising geographically, moving away from purely major metropolitan centres and becoming more dispersed throughout major cities into more suburban areas. This is an expected result of corporate offices and educational facilities shutting down, with workforces and students becoming more remote, alongside increased internet use for leisure purposes.

This trend has been documented by web-infrastructure and Content Delivery Network (CDN) giant Cloudflare, who published a set of visualisations of major cities across the US as well as London. In all of the graphics, Cloudflare compares the usage patterns from February 19 - before work-from-home orders were issued by companies and governments - to March 18, after the working from home exodus. In doing so, the firm demonstrates strong migration out of city centres and into more suburban areas. In New York, for example, a particular drop in usage occurs in Manhattan and especially in the southernmost part of the city, where Wall Street is.  

Overall, Cloudflare found internet traffic to have decreased by 10% in office areas, while increasing up to 20% for residential areas. While this might sound fairly minor, Cloudflare CTO John Graham-Cumming told Tech Republic that these numbers can be deceiving.

"[The] … world isn't divided into working areas and living areas, so we'll see drops in the center of cities but not gigantic drops because people also live there," Graham-Cumming says.

"Some companies force their employees to use VPNs [virtual private networks] that send all traffic back to corporate HQ so, despite being at home, their Internet use is coming from the corporate location. There's a lot of automated Internet use, think [internet of things] IoT systems in buildings, that don't move location."

Cloudflare also recently highlighted a couple of other interesting traffic related trends in a blog post on the 17th of March.  Among these observations is a notable increase in traffic of countries when their respective leaders are addressing the public, with US data centres serving 20% more traffic than usual after US president Donald Trump announced a state of emergency, for instance.

Similar trends were also noticed in The Netherlands (after the Dutch government announced the closure of non-essential businesses) and France (following the announcement of a lockdown). In addition, as one of the most severely hit nations by the novel coronavirus, Italy has seen an overall increase in internet traffic of 20-40% since the country was put into lockdown.

Overall, Cloudflare observes (up until March 17) an increase of 10% to 40% in overall global internet traffic, depending on the region and the state of government action in those regions. It also maintains that, given the internet's capacity for handling traffic at peak loads (which are often more severe than what is being experienced now), it is unlikely that it won't be up to the task of handling the increased traffic on a broad scale.

Web traffic figures by industry

While the spread of the virus and consequent lockdowns have resulted in fiscal peril for most organisations, it's been plain to see how some industries have been left worse off than others when it comes to the impact of COVID-19. This is observable through the reductions and surges in web traffic across different industries, which has been measured by cyber security firm Imperva. Imperva has been monitoring data across thousands of its customers since the outbreak of COVID-19 as part of its monthly Cyber Threat Index, which uses sensor data to assess the global threat landscape.  

The first signs of coronavirus related impacts on web traffic by industry occurred in February, with News web traffic increasing by 10%, whereas Travel and Finance both recorded 5% reductions. This trend continued in March as many industries saw significant surges in web traffic, while others experienced significant losses.

Based on a weekly average compared to January 19, 2020, several industries saw an increase in web traffic from March 1 through to March 22. These included News web traffic, which surged by 64%, Food and beverage web traffic which got a bump of 34%, as well as retail (+28%), gaming (+28%), Law and government (+17%), and Education (+17%). Conversely, industries that faced a decrease in web traffic included Sports (-46%), Travel (-41%), Automotive (-35%), Financial services (-7%), Gambling (-3%), and Healthcare (-3%).

While it's interesting to see which industries experienced surges in March (likely as a result of COVID-19), Imperva says one caveat of any significant increase in web traffic for organisations is that their attack/risk surface has likely increased dramatically. Industrial-wide surges are likely to attack threat agents, as they look to take advantage of the more vulnerable systems of organisations who aren't up to the task where bandwidth is concerned. Looking at retail, for example, Imperva says as customers have shifted their buying habits to online shopping in an unprecedented manner, businesses risk incurring additional costs by exceeding their normal bandwidth (BW) usage.

Overall, whether organisations are experiencing surges or reductions in web-traffic, it's clear that COVID-19 is offering CIO and IT teams plenty of headaches. Whether that's due to an increased imperative for managing massive networking load and the security ramifications presented by that, or trying to pivot digital strategies and investments in order to keep their businesses alive.