Jun 18 2020

Cisco Live 2020: When Mass Remote Work Started, These Businesses Were Ready

They didn’t know there would be a pandemic. But their efforts to build resiliency paid off.

 As IT directors gathered virtually this week for Cisco Live sharing stories and comparing notes on how they’ve handled one of the biggest — and most surprising — technology challenges any of them has ever encountered, one thing became clear: Although none of them planned to manage their networks in a global pandemic that forced the closure of most workplaces, those that worked to build resiliency into their networks have fared a lot better than those that didn’t.

Take Fannie Mae, for example. The mortgage backer almost could not have been more prepared for the sudden shelter-in-place orders that started coming in March.

“We were pretty fortunate,” said Ken Reddick, Fannie Mae’s director of network engineering. “We’d spent the last couple of years working on our resiliency and capacity, and, oddly enough, the week before we got the shelter-in-place order, we held a work-from-home test with about half the organization and it went really well. Before we could complete it and do a full test with all our employees, we were notified that was no longer practice — it was for real.”

Reddick was one of three IT leaders—along with Mike Everett, chief security officer of Farm Credit Mid-America, and Ed Vanderpool, IT technical manager at Adventist Health in Placerville, Calif. — to discuss their quick transitions to full remote work environments. Big challenges included providing a seamless work experience for employees who started with little if any remote work experience, while ensuring their networks could withstand the increased strain when their entire organization was accessing it remotely at once.

Employee Education Needed During Remote Work

Farm Credit Mid-America is based in Louisville, Ky., but has employees in four states — almost all of them working in offices. Few employees had experience with remote work, Everett said, so part of his challenge revolved around education.

“Everybody’s already a little on edge about what the new normal is going to look like, how long is this going to last, what does this mean,” he said. “We wanted to be able to provide the smoothest transition to work-from-home that we possibly could, so they could focus on things like taking care of their families.”

Many businesses are also struggling with meeting the increased network capacity demands that come from entirely remote work environments. Here, too, planning is essential. Although it’s not realistic to plan for a pandemic, all the organizations had been building additional network capacity as part of broader resiliency and growth strategies. Adventist Health, for example, increased the capacity of its internet circuits fivefold just three weeks before California’s shelter-in-place order took effect.

“It was very fortunate for us,” Vanderpool said.

Likewise, Fannie Mae has been pursuing a cloud-first strategy for several years, so its data patterns had been shifting toward the cloud already. “A lot of the capacity patterns were such that it could just switch from people being in the office to at home,” Reddick said. Farm Credit Mid-America, meanwhile, added bandwidth as part of a move to a new corporate headquarters.

“I’d like to say it was geared toward a pandemic if it ever happened, but it was really just good timing,” Everett said.

MORE FROM BIZTECH: What do IT leaders need to know about networking's new normal?

Shift to the Cloud Made Work-from-Home Transition Easier

Prashanth Shenoy, Cisco’s vice president of enterprise networking and mobility marketing, said the pandemic accelerated the pace at which businesses have been pushing resources into the cloud, but that’s a long-established trend. It should come as no surprise, then, that many businesses already had mature cloud-first strategies that eased their transition to remote work.

“That means that you need direct internet access to those resources,” Shenoy said. “So, IT directors are asking, ‘How do I provide the right security, how do I provide the right application experience and how do I make sure the business is still resilient?’ During these times, that becomes highly crucial.”

Still, the sudden shelter-in-place orders accelerated the pace of change for IT directors from fast to frenetic. The IT leaders at Cisco Live said having the right solutions in place made it easier to manage.

For example, Vanderpool said, his company’s work with Cisco to deploy Wi-Fi 6 access points throughout its facilities allowed it to reduce the number of access points while still getting high throughput. That, in turn, allows his team to focus more time on other things.

“Without that partnership with Cisco, I don’t think we could have been as agile,” Vanderpool said.

To keep up with our coverage of Cisco Live 2020, bookmark this page, follow us on Twitter at @BizTechMagazine or the official conference Twitter account, @CiscoLive, and join the conversation using hashtag #CLUS.

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