Internet Stress — A Q&A With Ayman Abdellatif
With classes shifting online, people working remotely and millions of Egyptians staying home more than they used to, the internet is witnessing an unprecedented surge in traffic. Experts are calling this 'internet stress,' and it has people worried about how much the internet can actually handle.
News@AUC spoke to Vice President for Digital Transformation Ayman Abdellatif, whose team has been in charge of the online shift, to learn more.
Can you explain what ‘internet stress’ is, especially in this context of the global COVID-19 pandemic?
Internet stress is exactly what you would conclude from the name. It's when the traffic load on the internet goes beyond the limit for which it had been designed. A good analogy for this is the transportation system. When car traffic is above the capacity for which the transportation system was designed, the system is said to be stressed.
In case of the CODVID-19 pandemic, it's almost like an experiment testing global communication, national level communication and even our own AUC infrastructure communication system and stretching to the limits. Typically, you plan the capacity of a system based on expected traffic 80-90% of the time. The traffic levels we are seeing now are much higher than those we would normally see because of people staying at home, remote study, remote work or even just more people at home watching Netflix. This incredible increase in demand for bandwidth in such a short time frame puts stress on the system: that's the bigger picture of internet stress in general.
What has AUC done to face internet stress?
Early on, we anticipated that the systems would have challenges. We knew what was coming, so we diverted resources early on to account for that. We managed to take capacity from other functions and services and dedicate it specifically to online instruction systems. So for professors and students who are accessing Zoom, Panopto and BlackBoard as an example, we diverted resources toward that to avoid additional stress. We ended up taking out resources from other services that we knew would not be in use right now.
Have had any complaints from faculty and students, and how did you help them out?
We have heard complaints, and we anticipated complaints. The communication infrastructure in some places outside of Cairo isn’t strong enough, so what we've done is give modems and mobile data lines to students, and we have been recharging them as they run out of capacity. Some — very few, but some— didn't have all the resources they needed to work remotely, so we've also provided laptops. Whenever we saw that the performance wasn't where we wanted it to be, we worked with support and fixed the problem. We also increased the IT Help Desk, making it 24/7.
Can you give me a rough timeline of when you started these preparations?
You can say that the writing was on the wall, so we actually started three weeks prior to going online. We started planning how to divert resources, where we anticipate demand and where we think that demand is going to drop. With our knowledge that students aren't going to be on campus, we knew that dedicating capacity to classrooms was going to be meaningless. We reduced that capacity and rechanneled it to serve people working and studying remotely. We had announced that the first two weeks were going to be a test because this has never been done before, and I'm very proud of the way that the teams performed.
Any major takeaways so far?
The lesson learned is that the world before coronavirus is going to be very different from the world after it. As we work on budgets, we are changing our priorities in terms of where to make investments moving forward. We must anticipate an uptake in demand of everything online: online course delivery, working remotely, online proctoring and online security and integration of all those tools. Zoom was a big hit, and we really brought that in at the last minute. Now we’re looking at how we can create resilience behind all of these systems. How do we make sure that these technologies are failure-proof?
What kind of innovation are we seeing come out of this?
Up until three or four weeks ago, we were very set in the the way we taught and even thought about teaching. Those boundaries around our thinking are coming down. If there is a positive legacy coming out of this, it is that we are opening up different avenues in our thinking. I anticipate a burst, an explosion, of innovation. Technology enables new approaches, pedagogy, thinking on how to construct and how to deliver courses. We're just seeing a totally brand new way of doing these things. And we’ve run into many challenges, but this is the nature of innovation and progress. I'm excited at the opportunity, and it's unfortunate that it comes at the heels of a disaster like this, but I'm excited about the future of thinking about things in a brand new way.
Can you tell me a bit about purchasing Zoom and integrating it into online instruction?
Zoom was something that people were using on and off. We looked at it initially and decided, with the infrastructure we have today, basically Blackboard and Moodle, simply relying on those doesn't provide us the resilience that I was talking about earlier. We tested Zoom and integrated it with a single sign-on, so you can use it with your AUC credentials. So much work in such a short period of time went into this behind the scenes. All the way from purchasing to testing to coordinating to putting information together to disseminating it was a team effort that worked perfectly.
Anything you’d like to add?
I was sitting with the Board of Trustees, and they were commending the way AUC as a community—students, faculty staff and alumni — came together as one with a willingness to go forward. I know this is a stressful time, so kudos to the faculty who had to switch things on a dime, the students who had to start consuming knowledge in a different way and the staff who worked day and night to make this work. We need to pat ourselves on the back more often, starting with students.