Is Your Network Ready to Support a Remote Workforce?

The recent surge in full-time remote workers is putting corporate networks under unusual stress.

More people than ever are connecting through virtual private networks (VPNs), taking frequent video calls or meetings and accessing business applications from outside the office.

Without a LAN/WAN infrastructure designed and optimized for the new all-remote workforce, poor connectivity and degraded performance may be frustrating end users. Over time, these issues could prevent people from being their most productive while working from home full-time.

The keys to improving network performance while supporting remote work lie in alleviating network traffic, better supporting bandwidth-intensive applications and routing traffic intelligently. An assessment-led approach will help you map the traffic patterns in your current networking infrastructure and identify the main areas for improvement.

Below, we’ll look at the three key questions you need to ask to pinpoint problems and remove the barriers to network readiness for a remote workforce.

#1 Are you using best practices for VPN?

A sudden increase in the volume of connections can overwhelm a VPN infrastructure designed to support a limited remote workforce. In some cases, the surge in volume strains VPN concentrators at the edge of the network while in others, the number of VPN circuits isn’t enough to support a much higher-than-usual number of users.

As such, the response to COVID-19 has put many IT departments under pressure to scale their VPN implementations in days or weeks. Consider the following advice to ensure your VPN solution is ready to alleviate the traffic resulting from a massive spike in volume.

  • Upgrading VPN bandwidth: Remember, users expect the same connection speed from a corporate VPN as they have in the office. You may need to upgrade your VPN solution to handle bandwidth usage from a much higher volume of users.
  • Stress testing for stability: The ability to handle 24-hour connectivity requirements is a must for many organizations, especially those supporting essential services. Ensuring your VPN implementation is stable at all hours is critical.
  • Strong encryption and authentication: More users than usual will be connecting over unsecured public internet connections. It’s important to verify that traffic to and from the corporate network is safe. To this end, consider implementing multi-factor or other advanced authentication methods.
  • Cost-efficient licensing: As cost considerations become more important during this period, making sure you can afford to scale your VPN solution to accommodate the entire workforce is a primary concern. Ensure your VPN solution provider will support a cost-effective scale up in user and device counts.

#2 Are you doing everything you can to support bandwidth-intensive applications?

Working from home full-time has prompted a dramatic rise in the number of people participating in video calls and meetings. Meanwhile, users accustomed to using CPU or GPU-intensive applications in the office may need to do so remotely through virtual desktops.

This increase in bandwidth-intensive traffic puts a lot of strain on LAN/WAN infrastructure, leading to degraded performance and user experience.

The first step to better supporting these critical yet bandwidth-intensive applications is to assess the increase in traffic volume across a few categories: voice calls, real-time interactive video, streaming video (such as training content), collaborative applications (such as in-document collaboration tools), and bulk file transfers.

Next, it’s important to consider possible network stress points and remedies, including:

  • Traffic routing and internet access: You may need to consider rerouting network traffic to optimize performance while most or all users are connecting from outside the office. Routers, firewalls and other networking equipment may also need to be reconfigured to carry ingress and egress traffic.
  • Strain on the network edge: A surge in connections will likely strain VPN concentrators on the network edge. Virtualized solutions may be your best option to scale quickly.
  • Conference and video call limitations: Higher demand for video and conference calls may push the physical limits of equipment meant to support these calls in-office. In this case, cloud-hosted solutions may help alleviate connection problems.
  • Advanced virtual desktop requirements: You may need to support virtual desktops for “power user” profiles with CPU/GPU-intensive workflows like CAD drafting or high motion video. Here, cloud hosted VDI is a fast, cost-efficient option for scaling remote access.
  • Remote phone issues: Over longer paths, remote or “soft” phones may be subject to packet loss or latency issues. Consider diagnostic or testing tools to identify connectivity problems.

Other considerations outside the corporate IT environment may also have a hand in degrading user experience as they attempt to connect. These include:

  • Home networking equipment: The networking equipment people have at home is often less advanced than its corporate counterparts. At the same time, interference and bandwidth competition from inside the home (especially from streaming video) may be degrading connectivity.
  • Public ISP congestion: Past increases in the number of remote workers have tended to cause congestion in public ISP exchanges, especially in areas with lower public network quality. With a historic surge, many people may be experiencing added difficulty.

#3 Could SD-WAN help you improve support for critical applications and locations with intelligent traffic routing?

The shift to an all-remote workforce will cause significant changes in the way traffic flows in and out of the corporate network. Meanwhile, most legacy WAN infrastructure was designed assuming most employees would be connecting from a core office environment.

Modernizing the network by adopting SD-WAN could yield benefits, including:

  • Software-driven management and monitoring: With SD-WAN, monitoring and management happen in the cloud while traffic passes through the LAN/WAN infrastructure. This allows the network to remain secure without relying on continuous cloud connectivity.
  • Intelligent traffic routing: The leading SD-WAN vendors offer solutions with application-aware connectivity, which supports segmentation of traffic by differentiating high-priority workloads, such as productivity or collaboration tools, from typical internet usage.
  • Improved quality of experience (QoE): Intelligent routing and more predictable performance in turn support better user experience for end users along with centralized, streamlined administration for IT teams.
  • Cost efficiency: SD-WAN also eliminates the need to back-haul traffic to the data center over MPLS links, a significant cause of performance degradation, especially for cloud-based SaaS applications. As MPLS links are traditionally expensive to operate, the move to SD-WAN also has the potential to drive further cost savings in the long term.

Where to Go Next

Most corporate networks were not designed to support a sudden shift to all-remote work.

The related performance issues could be slowing productivity as calls and meetings drop, critical files fail to transfer, or users are unable to connect. Solving these issues may be critical to business continuity. The first step is to assess your current environment to pinpoint problem areas and put the necessary solutions in place.

No matter where your organization is in its response to the global pandemic, our team of experts is ready to help you identify and resolve network performance problems and in turn enable your employees for productive work from any location.

Looking for help to address network performance issues?

Watch our virtual workshop “Performance Meets Demand: Is your Network Ready to Support a Remote Workforce? on-demand. Or explore Softchoice Business Continuity solutions.

How to Address the Top 5 Remote Work Challenges for IT

 

When “business as usual” is disrupted, organizations must address these priorities:

  • Keeping employees and customers safe while sustaining operations  
  • Enabling a remote workforce for the short and long term  
  • Ensuring the business continuity plan is ready for this or any situation 

To address the human and business impact, IT leaders are being called upon to answer key questions for the following five challenges: 

Collaboration 

The Challenge: Keeping employees engaged and productive while working from home.  

  • What are the best collaboration tools for your users and workflows? 
  • Should you enable video calling and meetings for everyone? 
  • Does your current setup support these fast-evolving needs? 

Remote Access  

The Challenge: Providing secure access to applications and data from anywhere.  

  • Do you have the capacity to enable remote work for everyone?  
  • Do your users have the right equipment to work from home?  
  • How can you set up and manage work devices remotely? 

Security 

The Challenge: Protecting users and data within a decentralized environment.   

  • Are virtual private networks (VPNs) necessary for every use case?  
  • Do your cloud-based applications need additional security controls? 
  • How do you achieve visibility and protection for all-remote users? 

Network 

 The Challenge: Ensuring your infrastructure is ready to handle increased traffic. 

  • Can your network architecture support an increase in video calling?  
  • How do you assess traffic patterns and network readiness?  
  • Is a network upgrade necessary to support remote work long-term? 

Change Management & Communication  

The Challenge: Guiding employees, customers and partners through rapid change. 

  • What are the right messages to share when and with whom?  
  • Are your leaders ready to train and manage remote teams?  
  • Do your users have the tools and skills to adapt to all-remote work?

Recommendations 

Ensuring Collaboration 

  • Begin with timely end-user adoption in mind.  
  • Select the platform that’s easiest to deploy and adopt.  
  • Educate users on new tools and best practices to drive adoption and prevent shadow IT.    
  • Test your network for collaboration readiness.  

Enabling Remote Access 

  • Use desktop and application virtualization to extend and secure the digital workspace. 
  • Ensure coverage for managed, virtual and personal devices. 
  • Develop and test a mobility plan for your specific use cases. 
  • Optimize performance for cloud or on-prem. 

Preparing Your Network 

  • Assess your current identity and access, endpoint and email security solutions for a remote work scenario.  
  • Consider VPN for business apps and alternate secure options for cloud or SaaS apps.  
  • Remember short-term solutions can impact long-term security and performance.  

Helping People Through the Change 

  • Encourage senior leaders to communicate the shift and what it means to the organization.  
  • Provide success guidelines and best practices for using collaboration tools to work from home.
  • Ensure users have adequate training on new functionality, know where to find resource materials and have easy access to the support they need.

Are You Ready?  

Preparing to pursue business-as-usual, maintain the same level of real-time, person-to-person interaction while keeping users and data safe is a significant challenge facing IT leaders today.  

If you’re looking for help navigating the complex challenges around enabling a remote workforce, explore Softchoice Rapid Response services.

Managed Services for Meraki: Demystified

Wireless internet is vital to your organization.

Cloud applications drive your day-to-day operations. Digital data steers your strategic decisions. Your users expect to access their work apps and data from any device or location.

For these reasons, you depend on an advanced network infrastructure. But what happens when “advanced” becomes “too complex to handle”?

Over time, added layers of technology create silos. Distinct networking devices and software require more specialized skill sets. Each one adds to the cost of keeping the network up and running.

Cloud-hosted wireless networking from Cisco Meraki goes a long way to simplify things.

It offers a powerful, cloud-managed solution for companies with a high priority on the cloud or hybrid IT initiatives and limited time or resources to deploy them. Its wireless mesh technology is well-suited to teams managing networks across several distributed locations.

Nonetheless, network growth, increasing performance demands, and evolving security concerns keep networking teams stretched to the limit. Even with Meraki cloud solutions in place, many can’t spare the time or resources to get the most out of the technology.

That’s why we created Keystone Managed Services for Meraki. In the article below, we explore the top three things you stand to gain from a managed services approach to your Cisco Meraki deployment.

Put Time Back on the Clock

Is your team up-to-date on every aspect of your Meraki licensing? Are they implementing hardware support tickets as fast as they could be? Are they on top of your return materials authorization (RMA) requirements?

Even the best IT teams get overwhelmed. Given the pace of change in most environments, it’s often a challenge for seasoned network professionals to sustain smooth daily operations. It’s also the everyday management tasks that pile up when higher priorities arise.

Lack of time, along with resource shortages and poor visibility into the network, make it difficult to plan and implement long-term improvements to the network.

Imagine what you could accomplish if you had that time back.

A managed services approach automates the repetitive, time-consuming operational processes associated with maintaining your Meraki deployment. Outsourced experts from Softchoice oversee the day-to-day aspects of support, including subscription management, compliance and device licensing.

We keep your network running in the background, freeing your IT resources to deliver on core objectives and innovation projects. The result? Your in-house team spends less time keeping the lights on – and more time moving the business forward.

Do Better than “Break-Fix”

Maintaining a network takes a lot of work. Much of that effort is spent reacting to problems as they arise. Between sustaining daily operations and troubleshooting issues, there’s little time to keep on top of emerging trends and threats

In fact, 91% of IT executives surveyed by IDG believed the networking profession is only becoming more challenging. Meanwhile, 70% felt the cloud adds even more difficulty.

In many cases, in-house IT personnel – and some managed services providers (MSPs) – lack the skills to move past a reactive, “break-fix” model of network support. Meanwhile, productivity lost due to outages and downtime for repairs can put a significant fiscal strain on a business.

Under a Softchoice Managed Services engagement, we focus on providing proactive mentorship to help you avoid common problems and get the most from your Meraki deployment.

Our subject matter experts (SMEs) guide you through the complex waters of licensing selection and asset management. Then, through event-style coaching, we bring your in-house skill set up to speed while keeping you abreast of the latest threats. The offering also includes support from Cisco-certified experts, which makes up the majority of our engineering team, who are available 24/7.

Move Beyond “Plug-and-Play”

Poor visibility is the biggest impediment to efficient network performance. Cloud-managed networking from Meraki provides plenty of real-time data into what’s going on network-wide. That visibility is critical for managing and securing traffic on your network.

However, the default configurations for your Meraki tools may not be best-suited to the needs of your environment. At the same time, reconfiguring tools to meet evolving requirements take up time and resources your team doesn’t have.

Our Keystone Managed Services team conducts a deep-dive assessment of your current environment, including traffic and usage metrics. From here, we help you move past “plug-and-play” configurations toward implementations optimized for your environment.

We focus on mentoring your team in all aspects of Meraki, from configuration to best practices for moves, adds and changes (MACs). Throughout the engagement, we recommend performance improvements and configuration changes based on quarterly assessments of your network.