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?

Register for our webinar Performance Meets Demand: Is your Network Ready to Support a Remote Workforce? on April 28 at 2 PM ET.

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, register for our upcoming virtual workshop, Making Technology Decisions During Uncertain Times. You can also connect with a Softchoice expert 

Testing Our Business Continuity Plan for All-Remote Work

This past week, organizations and IT departments across the world crossed a new frontier: remote work for everyone.  

While business continuity planning has always been part of an IT department’s mandate, organizations and their people have not seen disruption to business-as-usual on this scale before. Preparing to adapt to a fast-changing scenario like the one surrounding COVID-19 is a major advantage. However, being ready for anything doesn’t happen overnight.  

The need to support all-remote work has also highlighted the need for IT leaders to integrate the human factor into their business continuity thinking along with traditional concerns around data and infrastructure. 

On Thursday, March 12th, Softchoice conducted a company-wide test of our remote work capabilities involving more than 2,000 users across the US and Canada, who depend on 24/7 access to applications hosted in our hybrid data center and SaaS applications in the cloud.  

We met (remotely) with Jeff Reis, Sr. Vice President – Information Technology, and Lester Moniz, Director of IT Infrastructure, to discuss what went into preparations to meet this unprecedented need and how others could benefit from what we’ve learned.  

Laying the Groundwork 

Softchoice has always had a business continuity plan in place as part of our responsibility to customers. However, the last several years has seen the IT organization lay the groundwork for remote work with a focus on people, process and technology.  

The underpinnings of native business continuity at Softchoice came out of a strategic decision to outfit every employee for flexible work. About three years ago, Jeff explained, the company made a switch from deskbound technology to software-enabled tools. 

“In terms of the process, equipping everyone with a laptop, camera, headset and a suite of collaboration software – is by design when they start at Softchoice,” said Jeff. “Part of our business continuity plan is the toolkit we give them.”  

More than just hardware, the broader technology strategy touched a host of software and infrastructure areas. For instance, support for remote VPN connection required network and data center upgrades.  

There was also a major security component, including the adoption of TLS 1.2 – the highest standard for encryption protocols, without deprecating support for older protocols needed to support partners and customers. Planning for an all-remote work scenario included mitigating the risk of loss of assets as well as data loss. For the past two years, all employee laptops have shipped with builtin firmware allowing the IT team to track and manage anywhere in the world regardless of OS build.  

Measures like multifactor authentication and device encryption also played a key part in providing employees with a secure way to work remotely. A single-sign-on (SSO) portal model helped ensure ease of access to applications for remote users – tying together all the components needed to native business continuity.   

All these efforts were done “with the notion of any time, anywhere and on any device” in mind.

We applied this thinking to our Network Operations Center as well to provide continuous support to our Managed Services Customers. Even with all the components to support a remote workforce in place, however, Softchoice had never fully tested these capabilities for a scenario requiring remote work for the entire organization.  

They warned that rolling out all-remote work doesn’t happen overnight. “By and large, we did have this in mind – but not in a perfect way,” said Jeff.   

Putting AllRemote Work to the Test 

On test day, the biggest concern for the IT team was the stability of the VPN infrastructure. This had never been tested for the load about to be put on it. While VPN connection is not necessary to access all work applications, this would be the area where strain would be most visible.  

We felt good about what we had designed on paper and implemented, but as is often said, ‘the proof of the pudding is in the eating,’” said Lester.  

The good news: The all-remote work test went as planned with few surprises.  

At peak time, Softchoice had 60% of our users with an open VPN connection and their total utilization did not load the VPN infrastructure beyond 20%. At the same time, the ticket dashboard revealed a ticket volume and issue type dispersal consistent with a typical Thursday.  

Relief and confidence were the words – that our people were able to work without challenges,” said Jeff.  

Softchoice planned its remote work test on March 12th with the intent to capture and incorporate any lessons learned before shifting to all-remote across the company.  

Circumstances moved the timetable forward.  

 “The COVID-19 situation evolved so fast – we thought we’d have a week or two,” said Jeff. Because the results were so positive, however, the executive leadership team was confident enough to go ahead with all-remote work for Softchoice employees beginning the following Monday.  

An Integrated Approach 

Jeff and Lester attribute the success of the business continuity plan, to people and process, then technology. They described the approach as “very collaborative,” involving many departments outside IT, including Human Resources, OperationsRisk Management, Facilities and Communications.  

Decisions needed to be made and were guided by our company values. Keeping our employees well informed was paramount. Ensuring customer experience and our ability to deliver uninterrupted services was equally important.  Enabling managers to lead remote teams and planning for upstream and downstream impacts to the supply chain were also key focus areas for our business continuity planning. 

They agreed that the cultural shift toward flexible work also played a key part in the test day looking like business-as-usual from an operational standpoint.  

Applying Lessons Learned  

Jeff and Lester acknowledged that there are likely some organizations living their lessons learned around remote work right now. Some may be wishing they’d had a few months to prepare for this situation.  

Their advice? “Keep challenging yourself on the what-ifs,” said Jeff. They agreed that there is a responsibility for certain leaders in an organization to consider different scenarios and make the right decisions and investments to be ready to react.  

At the same time, Lester explained, the shift to cloud-based tools at Softchoice played a key part in reducing the stress on known potential failure points in the infrastructure.  

Furthermore, they advanced the notion that being able to work anywhere, anytime and on any device extends well beyond emergency preparedness. “It’s a cultural work shift and expectation of younger people entering the workplace today,” explained Lester.  

“I think if organizations start to think that way, it will open the possibility of reducing their dependency on a single physical work space.”

Where to Start with Remote Work 

In an unexpected event, complexity and confusion threaten to impede the return to business-as-usual. Our team of experts and product specialists are on hand to help you identify, deploy and adopt the right approach to support your users for all-remote work.   

The Softchoice Remote Work Preparedness Workshop is a structured workshop addressing the most common end-user enablement challenges organizations might face during times of work interruption.  The session assesses your readiness to support remote work, pinpoints gaps and identifies requirements. Each workshop is facilitated by an End User Productivity Journey Architect, a highly tenured expert in helping organizations to define and enable modern collaboration and workplace strategies. 

Explore the Softchoice Remote Work Preparedness Workshop