Making it work remotely
The COVID-19 health crisis has exposed the fragility of many business continuity plans. Major organisations that have moved from centralised operation to distributed, home workers have run into unexpected problems as the scale and speed of change has overwhelmed IT departments.
One of the big issues, says Adrian Brookes of Infovista, is about how data flows around an organisation. To illustrate the challenges and available solutions, we will explore a few real-life examples.
Contact centre chaos
A large financial services provider (which we will not name and shame) maintains multiple contact centres that handle customer calls and must ensure the calls are recorded to meet regulatory requirements.
With COVID-19 forcing the shutdown of its centres, the IT department was tasked with allowing staff to work from home. With browser-based applications and VoIP calls routed to a remote worker’s laptop, this was in theory feasible. However, all calls needed to run into the data centre first to pass through the call recording platform before being routed out again to the remote workers.
Unfortunately, the organisation’s network connectivity was designed for large flows of mostly inbound, low bandwidth voice; it was never intended to support hundreds of concurrent remote workers for both voice and apps. In this situation, implementing a zero-touch Transparent Hybrid SD-WAN solution along with an “on-net” call recording option allowed the company to immediately begin prioritising application traffic, thereby guaranteeing quality of experience (QoE) for their remote workers’ critical applications whilst maintaining UK Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) compliance. The transparency capability of the SD-WAN solution enabled a rapid, “hands-free” migration without requiring changes to the network.
In another professional services organisation, the prospect of enabling and supporting several thousand newly remote workers’ home PCs and laptops to access critical internal applications was a logistical nightmare. An innovative solution came in the form of a VDI deployment originating from a public cloud provider.
Additionally, software-defined appliances were provisioned to the home offices, functionally turning them into unequipped sites, and allowing the business to manage and prioritise the workers’ access to critical applications. The solution allowed staff to go from office to working from home in just a few days, without compromising on security or incurring a massive support nightmare.
In both cases, the key enabler was the flexibility of thinking and technology. The global pandemic is forcing organisations to look more closely at business continuity and one of the big takeaways is that the network, both local and WAN, can be a significant weak link if the business needs to adapt rapidly.
In normal times, enterprises tend to ‘throw more bandwidth’ at possible threats to worker connectivity. However, in the recent health crisis, installing new circuits can’t help businesses control the home office network. Threats to worker connectivity, such as competing household traffic, residential overbooking, multiple on-net devices are outside the scope of legacy solutions.
Instead, organisations need to think about how they can adapt their current infrastructure to react to novel challenges. And in many ways, this is a story about intelligence. Take, for example, improving the performance of applications that require WAN connectivity. Increasing bandwidth may not lead to better performance if the issue is about prioritisation of data flows.
Building more intelligence and automation around how the network behaves is a critical part of the whole software-defined ethos. And in the recent crisis, enterprises that have previously embraced agility have seen the benefits.
Remote work may be here to stay
Technologies such as SD-WAN, VDI, and SaaS (Software-as-a-Service) are all part of a toolkit that has flexibility at its core. Yet without some degree of forward planning, using them effectively in time of crisis is still challenging. In both the examples above, each company had small scale deployments of remote working that had been used for a tiny percentage of the workforce prior to March 2020.
The experience in these deployments allowed them to scale out based on the approach of asking the question, if it works for a dozen people – what do we need to make it work for hundreds, or even thousands?
The final takeaway is that when enterprises return to normal, remote working may not just fade into a distant memory. The evidence from a recent surveys is that, for at least some workers and tasks, home working offers productivity improvements and lifestyle benefits that are hard to match in the office.
As such, IT departments may want to consider how to build these types of capabilities as a permanent fixture with the option to scale as needed. Making it work remotely is likely to be more than just a passing fad.
The author is Adrian Brookes, solutions strategy and pre-sales director at Infovista.
About the author
Adrian has been in the communications industry for more than 25 years gaining experience in multiple vendors and service providers environments. He currently leads the Solution Strategy and Solution Engineering activity at Infovista focused on delivering SD-WAN solutions. Adrian has held senior executive positions at Newbridge, Cisco, Siemens, and Avaya where he has successfully steered companies on several technology changes including TDM to VOIP, Frame Relay, ATM, MPLS, SDN, and now SD-WAN.