The new operating environment
A little over a year ago NTT Ltd. merged more than 30 companies and business units into a single entity, bringing new synergies to its operations. Reflecting on the last 12 months, Michael Wheeler, Executive Vice President of the Global IP Network division, talks capacity, security threats and being a Tier 1 provider during a global pandemic.
Q. What are the challenges created by the Covid-19 pandemic on Tier 1 global IP backbones like your Global IP Network?
The initial increases we saw in traffic, at the end of February to early March, were not planned and so as the world was confronted with the pandemic there was a lot of reliance on the internet as things like work and schooling shifted to happening remotely, from home. The structures to respond to the demand created by those changes were fairly well deployed globally by the end of March, early April, especially across what I would call the three biggest continents for traffic, Asia, Europe and North America.
The large spikes in traffic started in February and then certainly continued through to May. The network scaled to that demand as well as the ability to handle larger spikes, but this was certainly unprecedented as far as volume. The fact it was a truly global trend and not specific to a country or region, ultimately that created the need to deploy additional infrastructure for ourselves as well as our customers, over a very short period of time.
Those were the implications and, since then, seasonality – for example the general lower internet usage during summer time – has seen some traffic drop off a bit, but fall is a time we usually see traffic increase in general terms because of schools returning, and so on. If I look at our September traffic reporting for the month, it is definitely trending upwards already. Not to the same level we saw in March, but certainly upward from where we were over the summer and that will continue.
I think we probably saw the biggest spike in the shortest period of time that we are going to see at this stage. Now, it will most likely be traffic growth that is more consistent with what we have historically seen with regards to the increases on a month over month, or quarter over quarter basis.
Q. How has your network responded to the increase in bandwidth demand created from people working, shopping and learning from home?
The increases were handled relatively well from a traffic point of view but there have been some pretty aggressive lockdowns in different parts of the world, so deploying physical hardware has posed some challenges, at different times in different countries as those lockdowns occurred.
In some cases, our staff couldn’t access buildings they needed to and while that is mostly not the case anymore, there was a period of time when that was true. We also wanted to make sure we kept the safety of our employees and our staff, vendors and partners in mind. That was the near-term impact.
The mid-range impact was around manufacturing as we have needed to deploy new infrastructure, cards, routers, optics, that kind of hardware and components, there have been delays and they continue.
For example, we are seeing delays in getting those items manufactured and then shipped and distributed to the different parts of the world where we have network infrastructure. It hasn’t negatively affected us yet, but it has caused us to be more proactive in terms of managing the deployment of those types of infrastructure components.
Q. How have the stay-at-home orders and lockdowns around the world that you just mentioned affected the operation and performance of your network?
The performance has actually been very good as it relates to the level of utilisation that has increased, so we haven’t seen major issues there. There has been the occasional hot spot that has occurred, when we needed to move traffic around, but that was fairly normal stuff.
The network has done a really good job in managing and handling the increased volume of traffic we have seen over that period of time, and I would broadly say that is true of the internet at large. We have not seen major volume-related issues. There have been a couple of networks that experienced some operational issues in the last few months, which are publicly known, but they were driven by configuration and software management.
Ultimately our network has done great and our team has done exceptionally well. They’re planning ahead 60 days at a time and there is a lot of work being done just to make sure the network performs well. There are a lot of resources that we have applied from a personnel point of view to ensure that is the case and it has been very good to see how well that has worked.
Q. Has this health crisis increased industry collaboration or sharing information on best practices among global providers?
I think it has to some degree. My only hesitation in giving a definite yes, is that one of the things our industry does pretty regularly is meet to share ideas and network and advance our progress.
We have groups of people who are really the hardcore engineers, and they get together two or three times a year in person, usually for three or four days at a time, at various conferences. There are groups in North America, Europe and Asia like NANOG, RIPE, APRICOT and others, which organize these events and host different discussions and working groups, and a lot of how the internet works and functions has come out of those types of events over time. Now, those have all gone virtual and I think the reality is that we probably aren’t getting the same level of interaction and collaboration.
Obviously, everybody that is an internet engineer knows how to use email and how to utilise online resources. Those platforms are there and they are worthwhile but there is a direct interaction component from those industry events –Capacity’s events included – and all those kinds of things have an impact on how much collaboration is really occurring.
However, this is the reality for a lot of industries, not just ours.
Q. Network security continues to be a very serious issue, as all types of businesses, even hospitals, health organisations and non-profits, are target of attacks. What trends have you seen and how does NTT help customers fight against cyberattacks?
The trends we have seen from a network security perspective as part of the Covid implication, haven’t been dramatic in regard to the volumetric attacks. We continue to see very small attacks as there are people working from home and using access in that way across the distributed side of devices and networks, especially over a longer period of time. That has increased, but not in a crazy way and overall, it has been managed relatively well.
From our perspective, companies have become very much more aware of the fact they have data management and data protection issues that they really have to keep in mind when they think about their employees working from home, either full or part time. That creates exposure but it isn’t a network issue, it’s more of a technology security issue in my mind, or data specific issue. Those challenges are now much bigger and much broader, which means that for the average IT organisation of any sized company, that is the challenge they are still trying to get their heads around.
From a pure network security point of view, we haven’t seen any outlandish spikes or problems. Mostly standard attacks and DDoS attacks, but nothing crazy. As a Tier 1 provider we present our customers with a series of options for network security products and services under our product family DDoS Protection Services, DPS for short. We have a variety of options customers can select from in terms of capability and function. They consider what they believe their risk profile to be, as well as what other measures they might be using in regard to network security from other vendors – that is certainly a possibility as well.
We also provide to our customers, as a tool kit, some capabilities around blackhole routing, and other options that are security related from a network point of view.
Not everything is specific to paying for a product or service, we just feel that at a base level we need to provide tools to our customers from an engineering point of view that will at least allow them to handle bigger, broader and larger scale attacks in a way that is helpful to them.
It’s a combination of those things and there are a lot of DDoS mitigation providers who are customers of ours as well so we work closely with those groups to make sure the services they are providing their own customers are also supported and effective across the network.
Q. Your company NTT went through a very significant transformation about a year ago when many NTT companies and subsidiaries came together to form NTT Ltd. What results have you seen so far?
We have been going through this “integration journey” as we call it internally, since the middle of 2019.
We are combining around 30 companies and we have a little over 40,000 employees globally, so it is a broad range of businesses and services, as well as regional teams, and that makes it a fairly large-scale integration.
After the announcement at the middle of last year, we went through a planning phase for about nine months before we started implementation. Ultimately it has gone well. It is very appropriate to say it is a journey and not an event – there are a lot of things that go on as part of a process like this. It isn’t always neat and clean; there are some messes that come along the way. But from the customer and market-facing points of view, we really do have a much more cohesive and scalable set of offerings for the marketplace.
As a business we are seeing positive results in the products and services we want to take to the market and the market’s reception of those. But it is definitely a transformation, it is not just taking a couple of companies and slapping a new logo on their business card. This is fully immersed in regard to systems, platforms, policies, and every other thing you could imagine from a company point of view.
It’s not going to be complete tomorrow. I think the initial expectation was for a two-year process, but it is fair to say there will be things that continue beyond those two years that will continue to require work. Particularly systems – those timelines are just much bigger when you talk about the scale of the project we are in the middle of.
All in all it has been a great process and for the Global IT Network as a business, it has been very positive in regards to addressing the lingering challenges we had internally in the past. This has allowed us to clean those things up and really be able to emerge out of the process with far more cohesive and consistent business practices across the board. However, projects like this don’t come without their share of issues and challenges along the way.
Q. What major trends do you see surfacing in our industry in the next three to five years?
Security will continue to be an issue and that will be at all levels. Network is one aspect, and obviously the one we deal with the most directly, but a lot of our customers deal with things around data privacy, data protection, data management, those kinds of security issues, which I think have different implications for businesses. They will continue to be a challenge for all businesses to address and manage as they do their day to day tasks and they will also evolve.
We will also continue to see usage increase. There have been a few different businesses that have seen their growth accelerate in really dramatic ways since Covid-19 first changed our lives and they are leveraging the internet structure that exists globally. We will continue to see that trend develop and I think it will bring some new business models. Obviously, there are industries such as tourism and manufacturing that have experienced massive negative impact. Those aren’t as directly correlated to our business so the residual impact is lower, but I believe those things are going to impact everybody in a certain way.
As we see demand grow for bandwidth increases, we will start to see next generation hardware platforms supporting 400GB internet as well as mostly likely terabit internet in that three-to-five-year window.
The 10GE to 100GE transition occurred a few years ago but quite frankly we still have a large number of customer ports on 10GE around the world and we don’t see those going away entirely in that five-year window. The transition from GE to 10GE occurred 15 years ago and we still have customers on that.
So those technologies will continue to advance in terms of the high-end demand of bandwidth and there will be capital implications for that, too. However, these advances will work on similar cycles to those we have seen in the past regarding the progression of GE to 10GE, 10 to 100, now 100 to 400 or terabit, depending on your preferred approach.
There have been talks around killer apps, gaming online and we are seeing a commitment from all businesses to be able to function in any way possible on line. Even if you own a restaurant you are now depending on people ordering online. The implication for a tech business hasn’t changed that much in the last six to nine months, but for other industries and segments, the reality is that they are all looking at how they leverage online resources to either maintain the viability of their business, or expand their use of the internet as a way to do that. This is no longer optional. Every business needs an internet strategy – if they don’t have one, then when it comes to their long-term viability, they are really backed into a corner.