When historians look back on 2020 and the impact it’s had on work and leisure, they’ll likely scratch their heads and wonder what happened.
The COVID-19 pandemic has upended everything, from the places we work to the amount of entertainment we consume. Platforms like Disney+, Netflix and any number of video games, including Among Us, have benefited from the overwhelming desire to be diverted from the horror of a mounting death toll and rising infection rates. At the same time, we’ve spent more hours in Zoom and Microsoft Teams meetings than ever before.
Keeping all that functioning has been the work of companies like Akamai, a content delivery network provider to big companies, including large banks and big-name firms worldwide.
But to keep other companies going as they made the great migration online, Akamai had to ensure it managed to move their employees successfully to adapt to the pandemic.
“One of the biggest challenges has been everything around personnel,” said Christian Kaufmann, vice president of network technology at Akamai, and one of Business Insider’s 100 People Transforming Business in Europe.
“Some people who worked at home had a little home office in the basement and that’s all fine and they continue.,” he said. “Then other people really relied on the interaction with the team who they haven’t seen in six months. They’ve got a small apartment that wasn’t set up to work from home. So now they’re working on their kitchen table and the kid is running around.”
Kaufman believes that’s likely to continue over the next half of 2021. “I don’t think there’s any fundamental change in the way we work. What we have now is a new approach for at least the next nine months,” he told Business Insider in October. “It’s not an interim, short thing. I think companies will use it to put more online and go forward in that regard.”
That means there’ll be more burden on the 300,000 servers Akamai runs worldwide. When the world locked down between March and April, global internet traffic increased by around a third, according to Akamai CEO Tom Leighton.
A long-term strategy
But the initial spike was the most troublesome period, says Kaufmann. It’s something the company has already dealt with, and now they’re keeping the internet online by building out future capacity even more.
“There was the big growth where everyone was at home and adapting to the situation. Now they’ve adapted to the situation: 20% office, 80% home office,” says Kaufmann. “It doesn’t really change anymore. You get bigger files and you get more streaming for sure, but I don’t think it’s an explosion again.”
Overall file size for downloads and streaming may increase as movie theaters close and streaming services start to release their slate of films on the internet, rather than through cinema chains, but that has minimal impact.
The company has been liaising with big internet service providers to provide more connections to fiber for customers. That’s proven more difficult than normal as ISPs tackle local lockdowns and staff shortages.
“If that one is in lockdown or busy going to the other companies and connecting everyone, then that takes a while,” Kaufmann said. “So that is certainly something we had to moderate and mitigate with them.”
But the potential impacts of not meeting end user demands for traffic means the ISPs have worked quickly to help keep end users connected to expanded capacity. “They’re motivated to give us some attention and help us increase capacity, otherwise they’d suffer,” Kaufmann said.
For those worrying that further lockdowns or spikes in cases could send their internet on the blink, Kaufmann has reassuring words. Akamai has come through 2020 unscathed and unaffected. “The traffic jumped quite a bit then it plateaued,” he says. “We had the headroom. It was eating into the headroom and we tried to catch up, but the traffic was growing more or less regularly. It didn’t go exponentially up.”
Kaufmann is also a realist. “You don’t have more eyes or more time,” he said. “Traffic settled at a certain level. With the catch up, and the supply chains and pretty much every country we operate in isn’t in lockdown right now, we’re fine. There’s no particular challenge in that.”