Working from Home and The Threat to Business Continuity

work from home

In January 2020 the World Health Organization declared the outbreak of a new coronavirus disease to a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. As the epidemic’s full implications became apparent, governments across the world begun issuing stay at home orders, lockdowns, and travel restrictions in a bid to halt the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus and prevent the overload of public health systems with patients affected by the disease. This forced many organizations and institutions to rethink their mode of operations. The result was remote work becoming a requirement for many, overnight.

With the ubiquity of mobile devices in this digital age and most business applications being available via cloud services, migrating workloads from the office to home should be a relatively simple process. However, very few organizations were prepared for large-scale remote work. For most IT teams, the challenge lies in ensuring their IT infrastructure can handle most, if not all their employees working remotely. But for the sake of the health and safety of their workforce, its a challenge they have to rise to and ensure the continuity of their business operations during an unprecedented pandemic situation that has affected everyone across the globe.

Remote Working is Not a New Phenomenon

Remote work is an already attractive option for employees who prefer greater flexibility. It completely eliminates commuting time for workers with familial obligations; and as the workforce segment that supports aging family members continues to grow, the demand for flexible working arrangements will only rise. However, while remote work is being increasingly demanded by workers and facilitated by technology, according to Gartner, most enterprises (93%) defer to supervisors to decide who works from home and when they do. But due in part to an innate lack of trust, only 56 percent of supervisors actually all their employees to work from home – even if there are supporting company policies in place to facilitate it.

Enterprises that have already invested in the cloud from an infrastructure perspective, or largely rely on Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) apps are naturally at lower risk of experiencing technical difficulties during this time. The inescapable use of remote work for business continuity should signal to all enterprises that it is time to revisit their remote work policies and redesign them for robust use. While the shift to remote work has accelerated, employees and organizations will begin to see the advantages and become better adapted to this model. Though the coronavirus disease has certainly affected work patterns in the short term, there will likely be far-reaching global technology implications, including increased demand for solutions such as Desktop as a Service and virtual desktop infrastructure.

Infrastructure is Key to WFH Productivity

A lot of the technology currently used to facilitate remote working has been around for decades. For most organizations, the underlying software, hardware, and support infrastructure have been designed to accommodate a small subset of the workforce. Performance, reliability, security, and the availability of applications and data are crucial. With the number of new at-home students and workers in the tens of millions, organizations are rushing to shore up their infrastructure to support new users while ensuring basic performance expectations are met. Apart from the clear-cut, procurement of the correct tools, licenses, and deploying them quickly across a broad workforce: IT teams must also make sure that their colleagues can reliably utilize the resources. This includes access to basic apps like email, file sync, and sharing, via remote desktop access and other virtual desktop infrastructures.

Naturally, unanticipated stress has been put on remote working technologies, leading to security and bandwidth concerns. Whether or not existing on-premise enterprise setups are able to cope with the sudden, yet prolonged increase in users trying to access the organization’s applications remotely, solely rests on the quality of the network connections available. Right of the bat, most businesses tried to access how much capacity they’ll require by running one-day tests. Agencies like NASA ran remote networking stress tests to understand what the impact of adding thousands of new remote workers would have on their networking capacities. Teleworkers will have to connect to their data repositories, applications, and other offerings to maintain business continuity. The effective transmission reliability and throughput of a VPN in combination with the internet can easily become a bottleneck.

A VPN is Not the Answer to All Your Problems

Software-as-a-service (SaaS) cloud is becoming mainstream amongst enterprises. Several applications now run in the cloud, making it easier than ever to leverage and acquire those apps to make enterprises more efficient and agile. The cloud has given rise to a world of mobility where workers can be productive from anywhere since access to applications is no longer tied to physically being in the office. With the coronavirus outbreak triggering a sudden influx in the need for work-from-home precautions, the need for easily accessible applications has never been more apparent.

As it stands, typical enterprise infrastructure involves applications that are hosted and installed within the office, and are only accessible from the confines of the office network. Most file servers are either hosted on Windows or Linux, with the two main types of file systems being NFS (Network File System) on UNIX/Linux and CIFS (Common Internet File System) on Windows. A vast majority of the organizations that have been in operation for a while, typically use CIFS or NFS file systems. An NFS allows remote hosting of resources over a network, by mounting file systems that facilitate the interaction as is if it was local. CIFS is also cross-platform and folders can be shared over a local network or across the internet. Accessing files on a CIFS network over a VPN via a mobile network is possible, but the connection can be patchy, access to client applications will likely be limited and extremely slow. Whenever a remote worker needs to access an enterprise application or document, they must first turn on the VPN application, which in turn grants them access to information sitting within the company network. For VPN applications to work optimally, they require adequate network throughput and VPN hardware capacity. While this is easy to achieve on systems built for about 20 -30 percent of employees working remotely, it can easily be overloaded when this number skyrockets; regardless of how many licenses are available for the VPN application.

Overloaded VPN concentrators may require massive injections of rules managers and hardware. However, VPN hardware is not the type of thing you can easily pick up at your local BestBuy, it calls for a rigorous procurement and installation process that could end up taking weeks. The VPNs that organizations typically rely on to manage and access critical files have multiple limitations. With full office closures happening overnight, and workers being asked to work from home. Several of those workers are going to turn on their VPN to access business files and applications, only to discover that their connections are down. IT support staff should brace themselves for a flood of calls from frustrated colleagues trying to navigate through the nuances of remote connectivity, support issues will be hard to diagnose remotely because they involve third-party hardware and networks.

Luckily, several apps that once had to be hosted within an office network have since transitioned to the cloud. Productivity applications like Google G-Suite, Microsoft Office 365, and communication platforms like slack have seemingly eliminated the need for VPN applications. Sadly, VPNs are still central to how several enterprise workers access their files and applications. And an overnight migration to a public cloud architecture overnight is not a practical solution for them.

Make the Most of What You Have

In the event user or performance, issues arise. There are steps that IT teams can take to reduce the load on networks and various on-premise IT resources. Managing employees’ expectations is important and making them aware of possible degradation in the performance of the services and applications they rely on to complete their tasks may lessen the amount of stress the IT department is under. To ensure workers remain productive and business continuity is not stifled, IT teams must find a way of enabling mobile access and file sync for data that lives behind a cooperate firewall without the need for a VPN and without re-configuring permissions whilst utilizing existing LDAP or Active Directory authentication. Several enterprises have heavily invested in scalable Network Attached Storage solutions like EMC Isilon and NetApp Filer. Solutions like NetApp provide low latency access to files as network shares via a WLAN or LAN. But they can still be used as part of a remote-work infrastructure with virtual desktop infrastructure applications.

There isn’t any amount of infrastructure or bandwidth an organization can purchase to solve this problem using legacy approaches, including the use of VPNs. Fortunately, the solution is simple. A solution that will allow enterprise data to sit securely on-premise at the office, and still be accessible to users via the cloud and not through a VPN. FileCloud can help remote workers collaborate, access, and share files securely with ease by mapping existing file servers on EMC Isilon and NetApp Filer as network folders and instantly make them available on networks outside the office. FileCloud easily integrates with existing active directory, NTFS file permissions, and network shares; giving employees low latency access to large files without having to recreate complex permissions.

Image courtesy of freepik.com

Author: Gabriel Lando