Dozens of digital productivity and collaboration tool providers like Microsoft and Zoom have seen massive upticks in usage across China, Italy, and the US because of the coronavirus.

The coronavirus could make remote work the norm, what businesses need to know
The coronavirus COVID-19 outbreak could be the catalyst for a dramatic increase in telecommuting. Enterprises should prepare for an increase in remote work and the long-term effects on marketing budgets, corporate travel, and commercial real estate values.
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Hundreds of enterprises across the world are now telling their employees to work from home as governments try to stop the spread of COVID-19 coronavirus globally. In addition to the cancellation of major conferences and other events, many workplaces are now preempting government quarantines by asking people to take advantage of a variety of new technology designed to allow employees to work from anywhere.

In countries with major outbreaks like China, Italy, and now the United States, enterprises have already had to deal with a massive influx of people using cloud platforms and SaaS providers to work from home. 

Popular tools like Microsoft Teams have already had to deal with outages in Europe, and other companies have faced issues handling the increase in demand from teleworkers. 

TechRepublic spoke with industry analysts and representatives from SaaS providers about the influx of users and what problems may occur with more people working from home.

SEE: Coronavirus having major effect on tech industry beyond supply chain delays (free PDF) (TechRepublic) 

What people should and should not be worried about

Dr. Craig Lowery, research director at Gartner, said no one should have fears that the internet will collapse now that more people are working from home and utilizing cloud platforms or SaaS systems. But the situation may vary depending on where you live and work. 

“There’s definitely an increased telepresence because of different attempts in different countries to contain the coronavirus. A lot of that connectivity depends on the public internet, so definitely there is an increase in the load. The way the internet was designed, it was intended to survive these kinds of stressful situations,” Lowery said. 

“So it’s not going to fall down or completely stop. But it will see some changes in quality of service, like response times, and will be very much dependent upon the network infrastructure in different regions, how well things are wired up, are there multiple points of presence? You’ll see different degrees of impact along the way that packets could be routed. As long as there are multiple paths across it, things will still work,” he added.

There will be an increase in traffic but the internet is already stressed with the influx of smartphones. The real problems may arise with companies that are providing telepresence and teleworking solutions. While they may rejoice at more people needing to use their systems, there should be very real concerns about how some of these platforms scale.

Assuming these applications are built to be horizontally scalable and are built in the public clouds like AWS, Azure, and Google, they will be able to expand and handle the influx by distributing the load out to different parts of the network, Lowery said. 

The other major concerns revolve around what potential slow downs in internet speeds could do to certain enterprises that keep their most important systems and data online. 

“For businesses who have built in the cloud and put their mission-critical things there, the question is if the internet does start to slow down, are they going to have problems getting to their stuff that they’ve basically gotten out of their data center and put it all up in a public cloud?” he said. 

“The answer here is most businesses don’t use public internet to get to their cloud stuff that way. They have their own connections, so additional load on the public internet is not going to affect businesses who have put those kinds of applications in the public cloud. Even though they are in the cloud and they are separated in a cloud data center, they would not be using the same things telepresence and teleworking would use. They’ve got their own dedicated links, so we don’t see them really being in a lot of danger. Now for those who did it on the cheap and put their stuff in the public cloud and stayed with the public internet connection, they may have issues, but we may not know.”

SEE: 52% of employees in some industries now work remotely due to COVID-19 (TechRepublic)

A lot of what happens depends on how far along certain regions and enterprises are in adopting the cloud. 

How companies are preparing

Colleen Berube, CIO at customer service and sales CRM software company Zendesk, said digital-first companies like Zendesk already work in many ways that match a remote workforce profile. Berube added that the company was confident that its infrastructure could continue providing the support that its customers and employees needed regardless of location.

“As we look at the effect of COVID-19 at a global scale and how businesses are responding to the situation, we’re reminded of how service, cloud functionalities and remote support are foundational. We are thinking through implications and potential scenarios, but our use of cloud collaboration tools is already very high,” Berube said. 

“We have a globally distributed workforce, and most meetings already involve video participants. Our use of the cloud is built into our DNA through tools like our own support and sales suites as well as G-suite. Aside from appropriate collaboration tooling, in times of uncertainty, companies need to practice empathy for their employees and understand that remote work does have its challenges.”

David Ginsburg, vice president of product and solutions at SD-WAN company Aryaka had a few more concerns. Aryaka provides software-defined network connectivity and application delivery to globally distributed enterprises. Ginsburg said enterprises may face a few different issues as more employees telecommute because of the coronavirus. 

SEE: How hospital CIOs can prepare for the onslaught of coronavirus patients (TechRepublic)

Enterprises need to have an adequate infrastructure in place to handle this growth of remote workers no matter where they are, he said. 

What we’ve found and what our enterprise customers are telling us is they don’t necessarily have the infrastructure in place to support this massive growth in remote workers. If they’re coming in from a certain region like Asia, and the infrastructure isn’t in place to handle them within the region, for things like the VPN concentrators in the region, they may be out of luck,” he said. 

The company has a number of customers in China who are dealing with this very issue, and they have worked to help these enterprises by transparently redirecting them to Aryaka’s backbone via a local point of presence to a concentrator halfway across the globe. 

Bobby Beckmann, chief technology officer of video and audio telecommunications company Lifesize, made similar comments in an interview, highlighting the ways that companies can shift bandwidth to other regions of the globe with more well-developed backbones.

Lifesize has already seen a 34% jump in usage over the last week and a half in the Asia-Pacific region but hasn’t had any issues with capacity. Beckmann added that the company was built to minimize costs while being able to scale up and down. Lifesize is also helped by AWS, which Beckmann said gave enterprises a bunch of tools to help control how much capacity they need.
 
Since the outbreak began affecting cities throughout China, Aryaka’s team has had to work on transmission infrastructure and work with local providers there on VPN concentration capabilities. 

“We saw enterprise customers that had greatly increased the telecommuter footprint and the throughput required. They began to run into problems with regards to in-country capabilities. We would be able to transparently direct teams in Beijing, Shenzhen, or Shanghai. If the concentration capabilities weren’t there, we could just bring them across our global backbone to say maybe the same enterprise had that capability in Europe or North America. But given that there’s been a spread, it’s no longer limited to China,” Ginsburg said. 

“The prime issue is if the enterprise does not have the capacity in a given region or country, the employees will have a less productive experience. If they’re doing work that requires them to access corporate infrastructure, or If they’ve got it configured that way and they can’t get into the corporate infrastructure, and they can’t get to corporate resources, then they’re basically out of luck. This could be shared files services, things like Sharepoint or unifying communications as a service and a whole rack of applications that will make them unproductive if they get into that,” he added. 

SEE: 8 communication tips for telecommuters to master (TechRepublic)

The areas that did not build up their infrastructure accordingly and did not predict this massive growth in telecommuter traffic are struggling the most, Ginsburg noted, but enterprises in the United States and Europe are a bit better off because they have more of a history with telecommuters. Companies across North America have built up strong infrastructures and are better equipped to handle this burst in traffic.

But, he added, it can be hard to predict what will happen if the United States gets into situations like China, where entire metropolitan areas were completely shut down for weeks. 

There has already been an increase in the United States in terms of the bandwidth required and the number of sessions required, so Ginsburg said Aryaka is looking into their customer base to see what the traffic growth looks like. 

We have enterprises that we’re working with that for example for the [Unified Communications as a Service] UCaaS and [Containers as a Service] CaaS side that are seeing massive growth in traffic across the backbones because more people are doing unified communications from their home offices. In some cases, it’s not only the remote workers’ bandwidth or the VPN concentrator bandwidth. There’s also the actual backbone bandwidth that gets impacted,” he said.

“UcaaS vendors in general, like Google, Microsoft, 8×8, and Zoom are going to need to be prepared for adding more distributed capacity to be able to effectively support a much larger volume of telecommuters.”

SEE: 10 Slack tips: A how-to guide (TechRepublic download)

Mehdi Salour, senior vice president of network operations and devOps at 8×8, said the number of new users for the 8×8 Video Meetings cloud service in February increased close to 100 percent month over month, with the total number of new users in 2020 already reaching more than double the amount since they launched.
 
Registered users for the standalone 8×8 Video Meetings cloud solution experienced more than 300 percent increase in the last week of February alone, and users have joined 8×8 Video Meetings in more than 150 countries, Salour said, adding that they have seen a rapid expansion in the number of new companies adopting their UCaaS platform. 

Salour noted that one of the advantages of cloud services is elasticity and the ability to quickly scale to support an increased workload, but the velocity at which a cloud platform can scale is heavily dependent on the architectural design and the underlying service.
 
In his comment, Salour added that 8×8’s core uses a cloud-based microservices architecture which was designed to be both elastic and linearly scalable, thus supporting rapid increases in workload without impacting the end-user experience of our voice, video, chat, and contact center capabilities.
 
Patrick Harr, CEO of computer data storage company Panzura, said the major players in the public cloud world, “have invested billions and have near-infinite scale.” 
 
“Ultimately, it comes down to your software, and whether it’s capable of being dynamically scaled to accommodate peak workloads. It also comes down to a multi-cloud approach,” Harr said.
 
One of the primary benefits of modern cloud infrastructures is the ability to auto-scale in response to increased demand, according to Kris Beevers, CEO and co-founder of web and app traffic management solutions developer NS1. 
 
SEE: How to work from home: IT pro’s guidebook to telecommuting and remote work (TechRepublic Premium)
 
This auto-scale capability allows organizations to quickly spin up new services and capacity to support surges in users and application traffic–like intermittent spikes from specific events or sustained heavy workloads created by suddenly remote, highly-distributed user bases. 
 
“If work and travel restrictions drive an increase in demand for SaaS-based collaboration tools, many providers, such as Salesforce and Dropbox, are prepared because they are using a data-driven approach to managing infrastructure and application traffic that allows them to fully capitalize on the elasticity cloud provides,” Beevers said. 
 
“By incorporating real-time data about network conditions and resource availability with real user measurement data, they are able to intelligently manage resources and dynamically route application traffic to ensure consistent performance and reliability. This same approach can benefit any organization supporting a distributed workforce with dynamic cloud or hybrid infrastructure. 
 
Beevers added that real-time analytics, measured against real application metrics, give IT teams the insight needed to direct and balance real-time workloads appropriately between resources as conditions and demand shift in dynamic and distributed infrastructure footprints.
 
Enterprises should also look to deploy new infrastructure and manage the use of resources to route around problems, address unexpected traffic spikes or even control costs between cloud providers as well as rapidly spin up new cloud instances to increase capacity in strategic geographic locations where internet conditions are chronically slow or unpredictable, Beevers said.

Organizations should also look for ways to dynamically manage traffic and resources to essentially “follow the sun” and move infrastructure around based on demand so that processing is occurring at the edge while seamlessly connecting and optimizing infrastructure to meet high user expectations for performance.

Gartner has also released a detailed set of guidelines enterprises can use to prepare for situations like this and has offered up a webinar for those with questions. 

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