This is part two in Which-50’s COVID-19 Disruption Series, which examines how Australia’s digital infrastructure is coping with the society-wide disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Read part one here.  

Demand for cloud computing in Australia is at an all time high as organisations move to remote work and learning as part of national social distancing measures. The global tech giants insist their systems are up to the task – already designed to withstand peak demand for more expected surges like online shopping and sporting events.

But such high demand is likely to be sustained for months rather than the one-off events public cloud providers usually prepare for, presenting an unprecedented test for the public cloud. Failure would mean disruption to much of the critical infrastructure being used to fight the pandemic.

Microsoft reports its Azure-based collaboration and conferencing app, Teams, is working well even with a 1000 per cent growth in the number of video calls made in March. Google says its systems still have more capacity even after more than 2 million new users joined its cloud based Meet application in March, spending more than 2 billion minutes together. 

Beyond collaboration tools, many organisations now rely on the US giants to facilitate their core business processes with cloud based IT infrastructure. 

Companies and governments have been migrating large chunks of their IT stacks to public cloud providers for a decade. Of particular attraction is cloud providers’ ability to “spin up” additional resources as customers require them, avoiding the fixed costs of on premise IT. 

Known as elastic computing, the feature would have, for example, helped reduce the severe downtime seen when millions of Australians tried to log on to MyGov to access support, according to some experts.

The cloud based infrastructure also lends itself to remote work, with the providers able to handle hardware, security and software.

Amazon Web Services is the market leader in cloud computing followed by Microsoft’s Azure and Google Cloud.  

AWS says it has taken steps to prepare for the surge and is confident it will meet its customers’ demand.

Adam Beavis, managing director, Amazon Web Services, Australia and New Zealand. LinkedIn.

 “Whether it is rapidly mobilising remote workforces, maintaining business continuity, or developing innovative responses to tackle COVID-19, access to data services is more important than ever for businesses and government organisations as they work hard to maintain and improve the continuity of their services for Australians,” Adam Beavis, managing director, Amazon Web Services, Australia and New Zealand told Which-50.

“We have taken measures to prepare, and we are confident we will be able to meet customer demands for capacity in response to COVID-19.”

Lee Hickin, national technology officer, Microsoft Australia, is also confident, telling Which-50 Microsoft cloud technology has been designed deliberately for mass use.

“While we anticipated huge growth, what we didn’t account for was a global pandemic that would see growth rates skyrocket at exponential rates,” Hickin said. 

“In Italy, we saw a 775 per cent growth in Teams use in just one month. By very deliberate design, the Teams platform has been built to be hyperscale and bandwidth friendly.

Google is also positive about the integrity of its cloud services and claims performance is still as high as it was before the pandemic.

“Despite peak traffic levels, we’re well within our ability to handle increased network loads,” says Mark Innes, vice president, Google Cloud ANZ and APAC industry verticals.

“We’ve designed our network to perform during times of high demand. The same systems we built to handle peaks like the Cyber Monday online shopping surge, or to stream the World Cup finals, support increased traffic as people connect with others, and get work done during this pandemic.”

Lee Hickin, national technology officer, Microsoft Australia, speaking at a Red Hat event in Melbourne last year. Supplied.

Innes tells Which-50 traffic on Google’s own platforms like Youtube and G-suite is surging but peak levels are still “well within our ability to handle the load”.

“Since much of that hardware is proprietary, we can accurately predict capacity demands many months in advance, to prepare for coming demand and user needs. We monitor capacity closely and expect to be prepared at this time. 

“In addition, we maintain considerable reserve capacity both inside our network and at hundreds of points of presence and thousands of edge locations. The performance of our infrastructure remains as high as it was before the pandemic — the result of years of preparation.”

Adapting to change

The pandemic is forcing organisations online and for many effectively putting digital transformation journeys into hyperdrive. While it has been a boon for public cloud providers, already growing at staggering levels before coronavirus, they say they are aware they’ll need to support customers whose migration is now being pushed ahead of schedule.

Mark Innes, vice president, Google Cloud ANZ and APAC industry verticals. LinkedIn.

“We are aware that many people are dealing with changes in their work, school, and community environments, and we are supporting our customers, communities, and employees to help them to adjust and manage the situation,” says AWS’s Beavis.

“We’ve seen customers from all different types of industries, including public sector, education, and health and aged care, adapt and find new ways to innovate with technology to meet rapidly changing needs.”

Microsoft’s Hickin says there has been a “seismic shift” in the demand for online services as organisations are forced into more digitised operations.

“In terms of the sectors that are really accelerating online – we’ve never seen so many bricks and mortar stores looking to completely pivot their businesses to establish a stronger online presence, and the education sector is setting a cracking pace in terms of turning face-to-face learning into rich online alternatives with no compromise on quality.”

Google’s Innes adds, “We understand the huge responsibility that comes with this growth, and we’re determined to continue doing our part to help connect people around the world.” 

Lasting impacts

Asked by Which-50 what will be the lasting changes of Australia’s massive remote shift when things return to relative normality, each of the cloud providers pointed to the surprising effectiveness of remote working and learning arrangements, albeit with the teething problems of such a large scale disruption.

“This experience has dispelled the myth that we’re incapable of working remotely,” says Microsoft’s Hickin, again pointing to the uptake of Microsoft Teams.

“From a technology perspective, many Microsoft customers had access to our technologies pre COVID-19, but weren’t necessarily using them to their fullest capacity. Now they are using Teams, they’re leveraging the cloud, they’re collaborating, communicating and being enormously productive and effective. 

“One key learning for all of us, is that once normal work life resumes, we can continue to use these tools to enhance our ability to connect, collaborate and create.”

Similarly, Google’s Innes points to Australian organisations ability to work and learn remotely at scale, forcing a re-evaluation of how business is done without sacrificing governance.

“I would call out when it comes to remote work/learning, it’s critical to choose a solution that is with a secure, compliant, and reliable meeting infrastructure and that is secure-by-design.”

AWS pointed to its customers – the market leaders longtime mantra is to work backwards from customer needs – and their ability to innovate even in a crisis.

Beavis says, “We have been inspired by the endless innovation AWS customers and partners are delivering to support those on the front lines of the COVID-19 response, maintain business as usual operations, and help those working from home to stop the spread.

“From developing critical infrastructure to scaling and expanding online education offerings, AWS is helping Australian organisations of all sizes in their efforts to address the COVID-19 crisis and related challenges.”

This is part two in Which-50’s COVID-19 Disruption Series, which examines how Australia’s digital infrastructure is coping with the society-wide disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Read part one here.  

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