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Keeping remote employees online and productive

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The world is tackling an unprecedented health crisis with Covid-19, and businesses are doing their part to mitigate the Coronavirus’ impact by supporting social distancing efforts, which include remote working. Now, more than ever, the Internet has become a critical lifeline for billions of people around the world impacted by Covid-19. Vodafone even recently reported a 50 per cent rise in internet use as consumers shift to working from home.

Although remote working isn’t exactly a new concept and many employees across the globe already have the flexibility to log in from home, most enterprises have been unprepared for the dramatic increase in remote users. For many organisations, they will need to rethink their ways of working in this new reality of an entirely remote workforce. Naturally, there are also questions around whether the internet services these businesses use and rely on are primed to support a remote workforce at scale.

An increasing complex IT ecosystem

Managing a remote workforce is incredibly complex because IT and network teams do not control the employee’s environment, but they are still responsible for their employee’s experience. Today’s businesses already rely on a range of third-parties including cloud providers, secure web gateways (SWG), CDNs, DNS providers, ISPs, , and more. It’s much more complicated than the average person anticipates. With remote working this becomes even more challenging, as local ISPs and home WiFi networks are suddenly part of the service delivery. In fact, a remote user accessing a SaaS based app may not traverse any corporate infrastructure at all. Add to this the fact that the existing enterprise monitoring stack was built for the old office-based world.

So, how are service providers holding up in this brave new world of Covid-19? Despite massive traffic increases, particularly across consumer last-mile networks, we’ve not seen a significant corresponding spike in Internet outages, which can occur when levels of traffic strain network capacity. Major public cloud providers such as AWS, Azure and Google Cloud have proved to be well equipped to handle traffic surges. However, there has been a steady upward trend in global ISP outages since the beginning of lockdown. ThousandEyes has also observed some performance and reliability degradation across key UCaaS services, perhaps unsurprisingly as collaboration applications have seen user and usage levels dramatically increase. Although, this has since improved throughout May and June.

While most enterprise IT teams are built to support a small subset of remote workers, few have  likely planned for such a dramatic rise in the number of employees working from home. Delivering a seamless employee digital experience is challenging enough on a good day. So, how do IT teams ensure critical business applications and services are available and performing for employees—no matter where they’re located geographically or their time zone?

The need for visibility has never been greater

While — so far — the Internet is not buckling under the weight of huge traffic increases, businesses still need to ensure they are prepared to reduce the number of IT help desk requests as usage remains high.

To ensure employees remain productive while they are working remotely, IT teams need better visibility into remote worker experience, which includes getting a correlated view of performance across their own digital ecosystem - all applications, networks and the Internet itself. Monitoring user SaaS and internally-hosted app experience and correlating it to underlying network connectivity, including WiFi, ISPs, and VPN gateways will enable IT teams to isolate and triage performance issues.

ISP performance can be tracked, and public cloud platform performance can be measured, which can help identify changes that can be made in online routing. However, organisations should prioritise critical SaaS and UCaaS workloads. These applications are certainly powerful in their own regard but enterprise software often has its own specific quirks and behaviours and doesn’t always perform well away from the high-bandwidth connectivity available in the office. With this in mind, it needs to be monitored fully to ensure users are experiencing the reliable performance they expect. Traditional monitoring tools can’t provide insight into the performance of video calls or SaaS applications, such as Office 365, so there is a need for specific solutions that are designed to handle the task.

At a more granular level, we’re seeing many companies starting to proactively instrument their employee devices to monitor application performance and underlying network connectivity, so they can prevent disruptions to connectivity. As work from home directives have come into effect companies now need deeper visibility into the end-to-end user experience when accessing apps, enabling them to pinpoint issues down to a WiFi, ISP or Cloud Provider level. Rather than making blanket expansions to infrastructure, which realistically will not happen overnight, they can look at employee experience holistically, when issues come up they can isolate them to the app, service or network at fault and add capacity where it will make the most difference to worker performance. Tests from user devices can even be scheduled to occur simultaneously during evening hours to mimic real user traffic flows, while not impacting infrastructure during business hours. Getting these concrete and more reliable metrics and insight into where faults are likely to occur is critical to knowing where to lay down investments, especially important as companies tighten their belts to weather the economic impacts of the epidemic.

As the world continues to adapt to the rapidly evolving environment surrounding Covid-19, businesses are dealing with the new reality of an almost entirely remote workforce. So far, the Internet is coping with unprecedented usage. However, this doesn’t mean that businesses can relax. Managing a remote workforce, especially relying heavily on potentially volatile unified communication applications, is complex and requires high levels of visibility across the entire IT ecosystem. Specialised network monitoring and even employee device stress testing can go a long way to ensuring reachability and usability of business apps and services.

Angelique Medina, Director, Product Marketing, ThousandEyes