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Coronavirus: VPN hardware becomes a chokepoint for remote workers

VPN hardware has become a bottleneck for companies with a high number of employees working from home as a result of efforts to combat the coronavirus.

VPN hardware has become a bottleneck for companies with a high number of workers staying home to avoid spreading the coronavirus, networking vendors reported.

Many companies have VPN concentrators or gateways with insufficient licensing or capacity to accommodate the unexpected demand, executives said. As a result, some businesses have had to scramble to provide network access to the high number of remote workers. Many of those employees live in cities that have closed schools and asked people to stay home.

"It seems to be at the enterprise gateway that we see issues," Angelique Medina, director of product marketing at network monitoring company ThousandEyes, said.

Competitor Kentik saw similar problems with VPNs used by the corporate customers of internet service providers and telcos, said Avi Freedman, CEO of Kentik. About half of the vendor's customers are service providers with enterprise subscribers.

Kentik found that the high number of remote workers is overtaxing the typical 1 Gb link that connects the concentrator or the gateway to the corporate network. A gateway can include a router and firewall.

"It's not a lot of traffic by internet standards, but it is by some of the corporate architectures that are in place," Freedman said.

Freedman and Medina said companies would likely look at cloud-based VPN gateways as a faster way to offload traffic than buying, configuring and installing more hardware. However, Freedman pointed out that the cloud might not be an option for highly regulated companies or organizations with strict compliance policies.

"Draining internet traffic, looking at cloud solutions are absolutely in the top three, along with upgrading the infrastructure that you have," Freedman said.

Cisco customers up VPN licensing

The use of VPNs has risen considerably since schools and businesses have closed in states that include California, New York, Illinois, Ohio and Maryland. Verizon reported this week a 34% increase in VPN use since last week and a 20% rise in web traffic.

In an email, Cisco security CTO Bret Hartman said customers are upgrading their VPN licenses to cover more simultaneous users. Also, just in the last seven days, trial requests for Cisco's AnyConnect VPN software has reached 40% of the total for last year. Meanwhile, the number of authentication requests made to VPNs through Cisco's multi-factor authentication software Duo has increased 100% over the previous week, Hartman said.

Despite the increase in internet activity, Verizon and AT&T have not reported significant network problems. Both companies were closely monitoring usage in areas where the coronavirus outbreak is most severe.

"We will work with and prioritize network demand in assisting many U.S. hospitals, first responders and government agencies, as needed," Verizon said in a statement.

Verizon reported in a recent Security Exchange Commission filing that it planned to increase capital spending from between $17 billion and $18 billion to $17.5 billion to $18.5 billion in 2020. The additional money was to "accelerate Verizon's transition to 5G and help support the economy during this period of disruption."

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