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Coronavirus: The cloud and datacentre management challenges facing CIOs as remote working soars

Ensuring their IT infrastructure is equipped to cope with the sudden surge in employees accessing on-premise and cloud applications from remote locations in response to the Covid-19 coronavirus outbreak is a challenge facing many CIOs right now

The UK government is urging citizens to do their bit to help halt the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus, and prevent the NHS being overloaded with patients affected by the disease. 

As part of this, people are being told to work from home (if their job function allows) to reduce the risk of them coming into contact with someone who might have the virus, or – if they are infected themselves – passing it on.

For CIOs across the UK, the challenge is to ensure their IT infrastructure can accommodate (potentially) all their employees now working from home.

But it is a challenge they have to rise to, for the sake of the health and safety of their staff, and to ensure the business can continue to function in this unprecedented pandemic situation that is affecting everyone across the world.

The general consensus of the experts Computer Weekly spoke to for this article is that enterprises that have already gone all-in on the public cloud from an infrastructure perspective, or are largely reliant on software-as-a-service (SaaS) applications, should be at lower risk of experiencing technical difficulties at this time.

After all, one of the major selling points of cloud-based application and infrastructure resources is that they are supposed to be accessible from anywhere, provided – of course – they have a stable internet connection.

The reality of the situation, though, is that there are relatively few enterprises out there that are truly “all-in” on public cloud, and many others that are still highly reliant on private datacentres to host their business-critical applications, said Robert Rhame, director of market intelligence at cloud data management software provider Rubrik.

“Most organisations have only moved tactical business functions to either SaaS or public cloud,” he said. “The decision to retain business-critical applications in their own datacentre in order to have lower latency and more control over performance gets turned on its head when suddenly the offices are empty and all employees must work from home.”

For this reason, said Bev White, CEO of recruitment consultancy Harvey Nash Group, the pandemic may prompt some CIOs to speed up their company’s move to the cloud, as the shift to mass home working exposes weaknesses in their existing on-premise setups.

“Demand for cloud services will hugely spike, [so CIOs can] provide the bandwidth and capacity needed,” she said. “Pressure on on-premise servers will increase exponentially while the cloud offers a scaled, reliable and secure environment with failover safeguards. Businesses – the whole country – will need tech like never before.”

On-premise systems under pressure

Among the on-premise applications and workloads that might be most prone to disruption at this time are those hosted in private cloud environments, said David Friend, founder and CEO of cloud object storage company Wasabi Technologies.

“An infrastructure based on a public cloud should be able to cope with employees working from home because there really is little difference in the workload, whether they are at home or at the office,” he said.

“Those companies that run their own private clouds need to be sure they can handle enough simultaneous remote users.  For example, if employees need to connect via VPNs [virtual private networks], make sure that your licensed VPN software can support everyone signing in at once.”

In normal circumstances, any deprecation in user experience that employees encounter as a result of working remotely is usually tempered by flexibility benefits, and work-life balance improvements they get from being able to work at home.

Also, in instances where working from home is a once or twice a week occurrence, performance issues are considered a necessary evil by many employees, but patience or acceptance of a degraded IT experience might wear thin when having to work remotely for a prolonged period.

At the same time, given how many companies across the UK have instructed their staff to work from home at present, any technical difficulties of this nature that companies encounter may take longer than usual to solve, warned Rhame.

“Essentially, with many organisations all acting at once, the best that the IT staff can do is increase the bandwidth for employees [in the hope of improving performance],” he said. “However, if the VPN is not able to handle the load, this situation will be mirrored by other organisations and it might prove difficult to get assistance from their vendor.”

Quality of network connectivity is key

Whether or not an enterprise’s on-premise setup will be able to cope with a sudden, yet prolonged rise in users accessing the company’s applications remotely, all rests on the quality of the network connections they have, said Rhame.

“[Home workers] will need to connect to the applications, data repositories, voice over-IP services, and other [offerings] to make the organisation work,” he said. “The effective throughput and transmission reliability of the VPN in combination with the internet bandwidth becomes either the enabler or the bottleneck.

“Usually, this is tuned to the needs of the mobile user and not the entire workforce, and so small hiccups that cause packet retransmissions are simply ignored, rather than IT teams spending time troubleshooting and tuning. Once under a considerably heavier load, this will suddenly become priority number one.”

Along similar lines, concerns are being raised about the collective strength of the nation’s broadband connections, and whether or not the sudden surge in remote workers might cause connectivity or latency issues. This is something CIOs will need to plan and make allowances for.

James Tilbury, managing director of Cambridge-based IT consultancy and support provider ILUX, said: “Connecting to external datacentres when in an office environment would involve accessing [applications and workloads] via a very high-capacity data link – even in the case of multiple offices.

“Once companies move to a decentralised way of working, it will be essential to review the company’s VPN facilities to ensure they are sufficiently licensed and prepared for the additional load.”

Making the best of what you have

Given the suddenness with which coronavirus has struck, there is a chance that CIOs may not have had a chance to test the robustness of their business continuity strategy before now, or drawn one up that factors in the onset of a global pandemic. This was acknowledged in the Uptime Institute’s recent Covid-19: Minimising critical facility risk report.

Ideally, enterprises should have a specific pandemic-focused business continuity plan already prepared, says the report, but – as an alternative – repurposing an existing one that covers “civic emergencies” should suffice.

“The plan should incorporate a tiered response, clearly identifying the actions to be taken at each level and the circumstances that would trigger implementation of the next level,” says the document.

“Most organisations have a three to five-level contingency plan, ranging from taking reasonable precautions through lights-out operation and, in worst cases, a complete site shutdown.”

It is also important that CIOs and IT business leaders use the early days of these unprecedented office shutdowns to make sure their private, enterprise datacentres are resilient enough to cope, and to identity any infrastructural weak points that will require shoring up.

Another factor to bear in mind is the fact that coronavirus might make it difficult in the weeks and months to come for CIOs to know with any degree of certainty what the staffing levels in their IT teams will be day to day.

Along similar lines, the Uptime Institute document recommends that enterprises suspend any non-essential datacentre maintenance tasks or upgrades during the pandemic to reduce the number of people required on-site and the risk of the infection spreading throughout their workforce.

At the same time, the knock-on effect that coronavirus has already had on technology supply chains means that some datacentre technology and mechanical hardware providers may struggle to ship new kit in a timely manner, the guidance warns.

Computer Weekly understands a number of tier-1 server and storage hardware manufacturers have already begun contacting clients, asking them to provide a steer on what their immediate and long-term IT investment priorities are, so they can mobilise their supply chains as needed.

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Among them is Dell Technologies, which sent an email out to clients on Monday 16 March 2020 to make them aware of the impact coronavirus is having on the supply chains of component manufacturers, resulting in “extended delays”.

“Most systems and configurations have been impacted, causing delays on production and fulfilment,” says the email, seen by Computer Weekly.

“To help combat this issue and keep your company operating as efficient[ly] as possible, my ask to you is to please send over a list of any projects that include any datacentre objectives along with any laptops/desktops over a [quantity] of five with their respected timeline of implementation.

“This ensures we can work together and make sure that we stick as close as possible to your companies’ go-live date and keep productivity at an all-time high.”

In the light of situations like this, some CIOs may just have to make the best of what they have for now when trying to provide remote workers with the same quality of user experience when accessing business applications at home as they would if they were in the office, said Harvey Nash’s White.

But it is also important for CIOs to take both a short- and long-term view of what will be needed by the business, from an IT perspective, as the pandemic progresses, she added.

“[IT leaders] need to take a before, during and after approach,” said White. “The ‘before’ phase is about planning – which they should already be up to their elbows in. This means thinking about the services they provide and how they can make them scalable and highly reliable for their clients – what needs are being created that they must meet?

“The ‘during’ phase is about how they will keep services running, with sufficient alternatives and back-ups in place, so they can adapt and react as needed. It is about what their Plan C is, not just their Plan B.

“There is an ‘after’ element too – although that might seem a way off right now – looking ahead to how things will be on the other side and what learnings they can take. Without doubt, some of what happens during the crisis will have a lasting impact and create long-term change.”

Lessen the load on networks

And if performance or user experience issues emerge as a result, there are practical steps that CIOs can advise employees to take to lessen some of the load on networks and other assorted on-premise IT sources.

For instance, ILUX’s Tibury said employees could be asked to stagger their working hours while at home to prevent app performance degradation issues caused by everyone trying to log on to systems at the same time each morning.

Alternatively, the IT team could devise a VPN strategy that prioritises access for specific groups of users to certain files and systems, he said. 

Either way, it also important to manage employees’ expectations and make them aware that there may be some degradation in the performance of the apps and services they rely on to do their jobs while this unexpected period of enforced home working continues – if only to reduce the amount of stress the IT department is likely to find itself under.

“Unplanned work, such as the work required to rapidly enable and maintain new ways of working, is a major cause of stress for IT employees,” said Steve Barrett, vice-president for Europe, the Middle East and Africa at server monitoring company PagerDuty.

Such stress is a well-documented contributor to the onset of illness, mental health issues and absenteeism within IT departments at the best of times, let alone during a global pandemic, so it is also important to take steps to ensure employees are empathetic to the pressure that IT teams are under.

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