Gartner joins GAO in raising flu network congestion fears

'Last mile' would be the bottleneck, as students vie with workers at home

Could the H1N1 flu virus give networks a bad case of congestion? It could if workers and students are forced to stay home because of the pandemic.

Officials at the U.S. Government Accountability Office weighed in on the potential for clogged networks Monday in a 71-page report (download PDF); Gartner Inc. analysts reiterated the GAO's concerns yesterday.

Although the issue has been raised before by various ISPs and network carriers, recent worries have focused on securities firms that depend on third parties to clear trades and process payments over the Internet, according to the GAO. "Internet congestion during a severe pandemic that hampers teleworkers is anticipated, but responsible government agencies have not developed plans to to address such congestion and may lack clear authority to act," the GAO warned.

Gartner picked up that GAO theme and offered some technical tips for businesses grappling with the problem. Work-at-home strategies for organization "may be in jeopardy as residential Internet bandwidth supply may not meet demand," Gartner said.

Both Gartner and the GAO, as well as other groups, have consulted with ISPs, carriers and large carrier consortiums on this issue, and have noted that Internet backbone congestion from a pandemic is not a major concern. The larger problem may be with the network "edge" or "last mile" in the residential portion of the Internet.

The last mile is a generic name often used for the wired connections between homes and carrier switching offices, often a mile or so away from a group of homes.

Al Berman, executive director of the Disaster Recovery Institute in New York, agreed, saying there could be congestion problems for workers who work at home without the right equipment. He urged companies to do stress testing on their private networks.

Gartner said that dozens of residential DSL users could share a single DSLAM connection at the carrier's switching office to reach the backbone, contributing to congestion problems. "Last-mile DSL and cable modem networks are where remote access falls apart," said John Girard, a Gartner analyst. "Backbones will be affected [some], but the network edge will crash."

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