Coronavirus pandemic: 5 remote work tips for IT Coronavirus: Surge in remote work strains Zoom services

Coronavirus tests scalability of cloud collaboration services

A spike in remote work due to the new coronavirus is testing the scalability of collaboration services like Zoom and Cisco Webex. Even small service disruptions could significantly impede productivity.

A sudden surge in remote work due to the rapidly spreading new coronavirus is providing a real-world stress test of cloud collaboration services like Cisco Webex, Microsoft Teams and Zoom.

Experts say leading cloud providers are unlikely to experience service disruptions that last beyond a single day. But now that millions of additional people are working from home, even shorter outages could hamper productivity more than usual.

"There are too many variables to say with certainty there will be no issues," Gartner analyst Craig Lowery said. "We know we have the capability to build things that are very resilient and very scalable, but everything has a breaking point."

Problems are already cropping up. On Wednesday, several Cisco collaboration services were unavailable or slow to load for hours in the middle of the workday, including Webex Teams and Cisco's control hub for IT admins. It was Cisco's third significant disruption in the first two weeks of March, after no major incidents in February and two in all of January.

In a statement, Sri Srinivasan, general manager of the Cisco collaboration unit, said the incident Wednesday was unrelated to the "unprecedented" growth in usage of its collaboration products. Cisco's cloud infrastructure is "ready to handle sustained peaks," he said.

Regardless of the cause, Wednesday's incident was likely a bigger headache than usual for customers. Webex Teams messaging traffic is up 35% since last month. And workers in the European and Asian countries most impacted by the new coronavirus (COVID-19) are registering for free Webex accounts at seven times the typical rate.

Microsoft has hinted at similar spikes in the usage of Microsoft Teams. Meanwhile, colleges worldwide are canceling in-person classes, telling professors to hold lectures on video conferencing apps like Zoom.

The good news is leading cloud vendors have designed their services to be able to scale quickly, analysts said. Most host their apps in the data centers of one of the three leading providers of cloud infrastructure: Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure and Google Cloud Platform.

The vast resources of those infrastructure providers make it easier for collaboration vendors to add network capacity when needed. Vendors that maintain their own data centers may struggle with a spike in remote work, analysts said.  

Of course, even behemoths like Amazon and Microsoft have finite physical resources. If those providers can't add servers quickly enough, cloud services of all kinds could suffer. But experts say that's unlikely to be a problem.

"I'm fairly optimistic that [a] … conferencing apocalypse is not going to be the thing that we're dealing with," said Art Schoeller, analyst at Forrester Research.

Businesses may be more likely to encounter issues with their internal networks. Companies typically expect no more than 10% to 20% of employees to connect to a virtual private network (VPN) at one time. But work-from-home policies are causing VPN connections to surge.

Also, workers must ensure their home Wi-Fi is strong enough to support their voice and video calls, and the services used by other members of the household.

What's more, some companies are attempting to quickly roll out collaboration apps in response to the surge in remote work. The hasty launch of a product like Microsoft Teams could leave many users in the dark about how to properly use it, said Justin Harris, CTO of ENow Software, which helps companies monitor their cloud connections.

These circumstances are combining to make life hectic for help desk workers, Harris said. IT admins will need to figure out whether reported problems are related to the company's network, the vendor's services, the user's home Wi-Fi or the user's lack of know-how.

"I wouldn't want to be working on a help desk right now," Schoeller said.

Dig Deeper on Team collaboration software