Jeff Creasy, VP of Information Systems, Extreme Networks helps us understand how to tackle the IT challenges that come with the remote working transition amongst the lockdown.
Across the country, the announcement that the UK was going into lockdown spelt panic for many IT departments. Being forced to transition entire workplaces from the office to remote working created numerous challenges. Whether these organisations were lacking the right technological infrastructure, had employees unfamiliar with working from home, or were in the middle of ongoing projects, IT departments were suddenly challenged with a monumental task. Many businesses may still find this is an ongoing struggle as they ensure they can continue to function during these unprecedented times. At Extreme Networks, we were faced with many of these same challenges as we finalised our merger with Aerohive IT systems during the call for lockdown. Fortunately, having prepared for such an event, Extreme was able to make it through this transition period smoothly.
Our IT team is a globally-distributed virtual support group who manages day-to-day operations of our data centres, networks, end-user functionals, and our on-going service desk. We are often tasked with complex projects like moving a corporate data centre across various global locations or managing the integrations of companies we’ve acquired, like Enterasys, Zebra, Brocade, or Aerohive. With our Day Zero – the completion of an eight-month project to integrate Aerohive’s systems into Extreme’s – arriving during lockdown, the pressure has been on to avoid any major network disruptions.
Approaching the Pandemic
With the pandemic looming, we began to plan ahead. We’ve been fortunate enough during my time at Extreme – where there have been disasters from hurricanes to flooding – to maintain network continuity. Fortunately, coronavirus has been no different. Even so, Extreme has prepared for such events with full back up data centres and by locating 75% of our computing environments in the cloud. By February, we had developed contingencies for worst case scenarios in terms of what COVID-19 could mean for our workforce. As such, we created a checklist and took inventory to see if the network architecture was prepared for the possibility of widespread remote working. Using this checklist we were able to establish that, being a relatively flat geographically-dispersed company, most teams already worked in a collaborative environment. Fortunately, this meant the transition would not be too drastic. Minor adjustments were made to the firewalls to improve security, but the overall network capacity was up to the task.
Extreme’s network put us at an advantage in preparing for the virus as it is set up with a mesh mindset. This means that if one VPN site were to experience heavy traffic, another gateway can help share the load. In this respect, back end intelligence and active load balancing have proven very effective in ensuring smooth operations. Moreover, since everything is virtual, we don’t have to constantly reconfigure manual hardware on site. This is especially helpful during times such as these where any changes that might be required can be made from a remote location. For instance, we often see spikes in network traffic around the end of each quarter. While the team is on standby in case our help is needed, we find that we don’t need to stay at consoles to keep the systems running smoothly.
In the immediate run-up to remote working, we were more actively monitoring the environment and usage capacity. So when the decision came to close offices, the effect on the network was well understood by the team. Given the wider experience that Extreme’s employees have with the culture, design and IT necessities of remote working, the transition was not a sudden one. This was further aided by the cross-functional COVID response team that had been built up from the company’s HR, legal, communications and IT functions to smooth the transition. Even in the first few weeks there was significant throughput and no requirement to throttle user bandwidth. Usage charts indicated that the transition to working from home had happened uninterrupted.
That being said, despite how prepared we were for the pandemic there were obstacles. One such challenge surrounded a large engineering facility in India where employees primarily used desktop computers. When the call for remote working came, their reliance on desktops became a problem as they could not be transported easily from the workplace to their homes. To make matters worse, delivery times for replacement laptops during the onset of the pandemic were at least two months due to the high demand for them worldwide. To navigate this and ensure that the team in India could continue their work remotely, we got in touch with Extreme’s network of reselling partners for the necessary hardware. Thankfully, through these associated organisations we were able to deliver in rapid time and the Indian team were able to continue with minimal disruption.
Another challenge came in the form of the ‘second-order effect’. At the time, we were halfway through a ‘Go Live project’ to integrate Aerohive IT. To help with this task, we had recruited the help of several third parties – such as PCD. However, now that these companies also had to send their employees home, Extreme was responsible for ensuring the new locations were completely secure. The pandemic also spelt trouble for Extreme’s effort to migrate all networks across every site to the cloud – an objective motivated by the Aerohive acquisition. This initiative needed a “big bang” where every site was migrated to the cloud during a 24-hour window. However, due to the pandemic, this initiative has been postponed until the team is back onsite where it can be performed most effectively.
So with these experiences in mind, how might we have even better prepared for the pandemic? Aside from having more spare laptops and headsets in reserve, little was needed in terms of technology. On the cultural side, more comprehensive information for employees on best practices in remote working could have been of benefit. A formal program that equips employees for the challenges and differences of prolonged remote working could even be of use.
Jeff’s top six tips on how to prepare for a pandemic
- Implement a cloud-first strategy to enable virtual application and services access from anywhere.
- Invest in a robust unified global network architecture based on proven technologies along with complementary third-party products to enable transparent internal and external network communications.
- Ensure all internal support functions are integrated globally and leverage 3rd party support services to supplement the remote reach.
- Establish a supply line for critical productivity devices for new hires or remote workers to have all the tools they need.
- Ensure your network provider can offer you support alternatives whether you are based in the datacenter or at home.
- Be ready to support your employees who will have to adapt to the challenges of remote working with either extensive IT resources or a response team if possible