The ‘branch of one’ and the new enterprise edge
The pandemic forced organisations everywhere to come up with rapid solutions to unforeseen challenges. In particular, says Guy Matthews, editor of NetReporter, they were tasked almost overnight with finding ways of supporting hundreds or perhaps thousands of remote workers — the so-called ‘branch of one’. This required an architecture able to extend enterprise class networks to remote and mobile employees.
The emphasis in early 2020 was on business continuity, disaster avoidance and, where possible, cost optimisation. But now thoughts are turning instead to what happens now and looking ahead to the ‘next normal’. What should long term IT procurement strategies look like? What sort of targeted investments will be needed to help enterprises get back to growth and some version of existence as we had it before?
“Technology is something that can help organisations accelerate their transition through this process,” says Brandon Butler, senior research analyst, enterprise networks with independent consulting firm IDC. “And it can help organisations ensure resiliency, enable agility, and overcome some of the business continuity and cost optimisation challenges that they have. Organisations are at a point where they’re looking to make targeted investments in technology for supporting remote workers and a hybrid workforce.”
An integral part of this discussion is the future of connectedness. How will the networks of the future work to support post-pandemic ambitions and aspirations?
Variety of endpoints
“We now have a variety of endpoints that need data to move from one place to another,” explains Butler. “We’re doing this to enable business continuity and reliability, and to get real-time insights to support pervasive digital experiences. The network is a core enabler of all that connectivity. If you think about cloud and about enabling mobility and using ML and AI (machine learning and artificial intelligence), these all require a scalable and efficient network.
But there are challenges that organisations have in supporting all this data in motion. There are more users and devices than ever on the network. There are more high bandwidth applications, such as video traffic, and there’s an expectation of low latency. It’s challenging. And then you add on top of it the COVID pandemic and support remote workers, and that’s why we’re seeing ‘branch of one’ architectures come about.”
IDC research suggests that pre-pandemic about 38% of workers had a flexible or hybrid work arrangement or were working remotely full time. By December 2020 that number had increased to more than 70% of workers working remotely. Post COVID, IDC expects more than half of employees to be working remotely, either full time or part of the time.
“We saw lots of Band Aid solutions put into place last year,” adds Butler. “But now that we’re starting to welcome people back into the office, it’s time to think about what strategic investments are needed. How do I really want to set my network up and my organisation up to ensure that I can support remote workers and people coming back into the office?”
The right tools will naturally need to be deployed: “Our survey data shows that cloud-based platforms for centrally managing enterprise network policies, both for in person and remote workers, are important,” says Butler. “You also need basic security access, like VPN, for a branch of one architecture. Having centralised security platforms is also important, plus having visibility and analytics tools for monitoring the application and user experience.”
It is also valuable, he says, to consider the different personas of remote workers and look at what they need, “There’s what we call knowledge workers, accounting for the biggest swath of remote workers. Not all these need a hardened appliance, maybe just a soft client VPN or an optimised app for ensuring connectivity to a cloud gateway.
Perhaps they just need augmented broadband connectivity. Then there’s a category that includes developers and call centre workers. They need a slightly more firmed up solution for the branch of one. We might see organisations rolling out a Wi Fi access point or an LTE router to augment their connectivity. Then there’s remote workers for whom connectivity failure is not an option executives in finance and legal and healthcare. You really don’t want the network to go down on them during online meetings or other critical work. For them we’ll see more hardened security appliances being rolled out, such as an SD WAN gateway, or a firewall appliance.”
Consideration is also needed for collaborative applications, and for access to cloud-based applications, “That needs a centralised management platform for managing access to the network,” Butler adds.
To broaden the conversation on tech investment for the branch of one, and the impact of COVID generally, Butler was joined by some senior figures from industry to share their experiences. These included Samantha Davis, CIO Americas with Arkema Inc., a global chemical company headquartered in France and with a US office near Philadelphia.
Some essential office staff
She talked first about what the last year and a half have been like for her organisation, “As a chemical company we have R&D facilities, so it was essential for some staff to be in an office, but the large majority were remote,” she recalls. “We had to look at our VPN and figure how to extend that. How do we ensure that the end user experience is essentially like they’re in the office? How do we extend security? It started with a mindset shift from where you are designing and building with the assumption that people are in the office. Now you’re designing and building with them being remote.”
She recounts how the company developed the new role of ‘Usage Coach’, “Their job is to help people learn how to use collaborative tools, and that increased adoption overall,” she says. “We saw an accelerated growth and understanding of how to use the tools.”
Mark Parr is global director of information technology with global law firm HFW, “Initially, it felt as though we had just gone into business continuity or disaster recovery mode,” he recollects. “It probably took us two or three months to get out of that mindset and realise that this wasn’t just going to be a moment in time but was an enduring process and something we had to consider on that basis.”
He says the first step was to get aggressive with technology deployments: “We needed collaboration tools, so we brought Microsoft Teams in earlier than planned to ensure that we gave everybody access to a tool that would give them collaboration and video conferencing and which they could use from home. We found being aggressive with that deployment led to competency and confidence in those tools, which in turn allowed us to think about how we might deploy future technologies.”
Supporting customers, not just ourselves
Gaurav Anand is a board member, with Tata Communications America, known best as a digital ecosystem enabler for multinational corporations. He recalls how the company went from 5% ‘work from home’ to 95% in the course of what he calls ‘a bad couple of days’, “It was important to realise we were not only serving ourselves, but by the nature of the business we’re in we were there to support our customers,” he says.
“We set about addressing the limitations of how many people could access what they needed. Then there were obviously security and quality concerns. Just because people went remote, they didn’t lower their expectations of what their experience needed to be.”
He recalls checking out Zero Trust network access solutions, looking for a way to substitute for VPN access, “There was an explosion in collaboration platforms too,” he adds.
Ian Wood is head of technology UK & Ireland with global software organisation Veritas Technologies. He noted stark differences between organisations in the tech space, used to working from home and to remote connectivity, and other types of organisation, “Think about a trading house, where they are very traditional with a 100% ‘workflow from the office’ mindset prior to COVID,” he says.
“One of the big things on the horizon, as we move back to normality, is the work to be done in standardising on tool sets. We’ve seen adoption of many tools, whether that’s adoption in cloud, deploying multi cloud, choosing the right cloud fit. These companies are not standardising on data management or data security tool sets, so every cloud that has been deployed comes with its own complexity.”
Davis of Arkema believes that a future priority should be technology training for team members so they understand all the things that the tools the company has invested in can do, “That takes time,” she says. “You have to have the learning while you’re having the implementation, and allow them time to engage. They need to see how other people are using tools. Then you can move forward and really use them to the best advantage. We operate in 55 countries. From an IT perspective our main offices are in Asia, Europe and in the US. And it’s different everywhere.”
Analyst chair: Brandon Butler, senior research analyst, Enterprise Networks IDC
Samantha Davis, CIO Americas, Arkema Inc.
Mark Parr, global director of information technology, HFW
Gaurav Anand, board member, Tata Communications America, Inc.
Ian Wood, head of technology UK & Ireland at Veritas Technologies.
The author is Guy Matthews, editor of NetReporter.