[Editor’s Note: Independent security consultant Christopher Budd worked previously in Microsoft’s Security Response Center for 10 years.]
Commentary: Yes, 2020 really sucked. But it could have been worse: the internet could have crashed, or not been there at all.
This isn’t a joke in the vein of “it could be worse, it could be raining” from “Young Frankenstein.” This is an important, easily overlooked truth from the past year. It’s one of the most important positive stories from 2020.
In crisis management, my field of work, doing a good job involves making something less bad than it might have been. When bad things happen, one of the hardest things for people to grasp is how things could have been even worse. We often don’t have a simple scale that says, “This was a 6 on a scale of 1-10, but it could have been a 10.”
In this crisis, even though things are terrible, the technology sector has succeeded in making things less bad. But to understand this success, in the midst of economic devastation, requires some context. Just look at how much of our lives shifted to the internet as a result of the pandemic. It’s an incredible and noteworthy accomplishment. Imagine what things would have been like without the internet. In short, 2020 should go down as a year in which technology saved a large part of the economy.
When the pandemic hit, lockdowns and social distancing moved us from the physical world to the Internet for our work and social lives. Video conferencing numbers demonstrate the reality. Zoom went from 10 million daily meeting participants in December 2019 to 300 million in April 2020, an increase of 3,000%. Microsoft went from 20 million daily users in November 2019 to 115 million daily users for Microsoft Teams by October 2020, an increase of 575%. Google didn’t provide comparable numbers but said it saw 235 million daily participants for Google Meet by the third quarter of 2020.
All three services’ ability to grow and meet this skyrocketing demand also reflects other companies’ work. According to Reuters, the Zoom infrastructure was hosted using its own data centers, but major cloud providers including Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure and Oracle Cloud were in the mix, too. Obviously, Google’s and Microsoft’s services relied on their own clouds.
This means that all those cloud service providers were able to scale to meet the 3,000% growth of Zoom, the 575% growth of Microsoft Teams, plus whatever growth Google Meet saw. It also means that the Internet infrastructure providers for Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Oracle and Zoom were able to meet this surge without issue. Ultimately it means all these companies were able to accommodate a huge spike in one of the highest bandwidth services on the Internet.
Yes, there were cloud outages along the way. Slack’s problems on Monday offer a small glimpse of what can happen when a widely used communication service goes down.
But the fact that a single high-bandwidth service, video conferencing, could grow to such numbers while not impacting other services speaks volumes about the resilience of the broader Internet. All the more so when we remember that all companies were doing this while contending with their own lockdowns and social distancing around the globe.
This is a sliver of the complete picture, but the sliver alone is impressive to anyone who’s worked on networks. And the bigger picture it implies is truly incredible. This time last year, I don’t believe any of us would have been willing to bet that the internet would be able to absorb such a massive and sudden change so gracefully. I certainly wouldn’t have.
It’s equally hard to find clear numbers to show how much of the economy would have collapsed if the Internet wasn’t up and running. Anecdotally, we can see that companies and organizations around the world moved broadly to a work-from-home approach after lockdowns hit. And we can know that a large percentage of those jobs would have stopped or gone away entirely if working from home via the Internet weren’t an option.
We can gain another sliver of the complete picture if we look at growth numbers from Amazon. This isn’t a perfect measure: Amazon grows every year. But its growth in 2020 is some evidence of how much economic activity shifted online during the pandemic.
Amazon notes that in the 2020 holiday season alone it sold more than 1.5 billion toys, home products, beauty and personal care products, and electronics. Small and medium-sized businesses selling in Amazon’s marketplace increased their sales by more 50%, representing almost another billion products. To meet demand, Amazon hired hundreds of thousands of people.
Some of that growth comes at the expense of other physical retailers, pointing to some of the economic devastation from the pandemic. But it’s also reasonable to presume that these numbers reflect a lot of economic activity that would not have happened due to lockdowns and social distancing, if ecommerce weren’t possible. This surge in ecommerce also points to a surge in internet traffic, which coincided with a surge in other internet traffic, like video conferencing.
Taken together, this shows how huge and sudden the online shift has been during the pandemic.
And now, we can imagine at least some of what would be gone if there was no internet, or if the internet had been unable to cope with these surges. Jobs that were done from home wouldn’t have been done. Sales that happened online wouldn’t have happened. All the economic activity that happened via the internet wouldn’t have happened, drastically deepening the losses from the crisis.
This isn’t to say that society and the economy are faring well in this crisis: they’re not. Instead, it is to say that things could have been significantly worse if we didn’t have the resilient internet we have. In the midst of so much bad news, it’s important to note the positive things when and where they do occur.
This also means that we should take time and be grateful for the people who have been working to keep all of this up and running. People working in engineering hubs and data centers around the world are providing critical services, and in some cases truly essential services.
As we go into 2021, there is a lot of hope that the COVID-19 vaccine will return us to the way things were. But many things won’t be the same. One permanent change is the role of the internet in our lives. This experience has been the biggest, fastest, work-from-home, live-via-the internet pilot program imaginable. The results will take time to digest, but even now we’re seeing companies rethinking their stances on working from home. And the reality is that some percentage of people who have adopted more online shopping will keep shopping online. All of these changes plus others result from the fact that in 2020, the Internet was tested, and passed that test with flying colors.
In the end, we can say 2020 sucked. But thanks to the Internet, rather than being a 9 on a 1-10 scale, it was maybe a 7. And after the year we just had, that’s a victory.