Ensuring your Business Continuity during the Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) Outbreak
Up until now most businesses have worked on the principle that a limited number of staff will work remotely at any one time and have built their IT infrastructure on that premise. However, with the scenario currently presented by COVID-19, there is a very real possibility that the entire workforces of companies may need to work remotely in the event the government enforces travel bans, quarantining and other tactics as the outbreak worsens.
This blog discusses some of the infrastructure elements of a remote working strategy in the construction and manufacturing sectors, but many of these points will be relevant to other industries also.
Elements to Consider
Like project management, remote working has what I see as a triple constraint whereby there are 3 main aspects to remote working (security, performance and cost), and increasing one will result in changes to one of the others. For example, if you want users to be able to work on 3D models from home, but you don’t wish to decrease the security of your network, then it is more than likely you will have to increase your costs.
This is most challenging in construction and manufacturing because of the 3D models and large data sets that users work with.
So, what does this mean to you and your business continuity?
It is important to understand the need to provide a carefully balanced and considered approach when looking at how individual users work, and therefore how the business carries on working when faced with unusual events such as we are experiencing today.
You will want to keep your data and network secure but by allowing remote access to the estate, you are exposing yourselves to more risks. The most common way to allow users to access work is via a VPN.
A VPN (Virtual Private Network) provides a secure tunnel or connection between 2 endpoints without a man-in-the-middle being able to read the data, in this instance a user’s end machine and the business. VPNs are incredibly useful as they allow users to access company resources securely without being physically located in the office but depending on the nature of individual needs there are considerations and potential drawbacks.
The most basic VPNs are normally provided by a firewall and allow the end user full access to the entire business from the end user’s device. Normally the business provide its users with a corporate laptop with a VPN enabled, and only these devices can connect to the network. This means the company has full control of the set-up from end-to-end.
However, not all workers have a laptop. Many work from workstations that are office located. In this scenario, VPN could be enabled on non-corporate devices i.e. personal devices, but this comes with the risk that all company data and applications could be accessed by a non-secure and possibly malware infected system without any protection in place.
With enhanced VPN hardware appliances you could open up access to personal devices, restricting VPN access to those systems that are compliant, fully patched and protected with anti-virus/anti-malware software, and even then access can be restricted to limited company resources.
Productivity / Performance
Due to the applications in use in construction and manufacturing, (e.g. Autodesk Revit), the laptop the user takes home needs more powerful hardware than a standard laptop or home machine meaning it can be bulky and unwieldly, and so users don’t like to use them especially with a long commute on public transport.
Even if the user and business are happy with the use of a laptop, normally the files are of such a size that accessing them remotely, even over very good fibre broadband connections, becomes unproductive. This is because of the way the software works and the amount of data in question. Users can work on the same models in the same office but when you add latency on the connection and reduced bandwidth via an Internet connection to the system, the user experience worsens.
An alternative would be to use remote connectivity software to connect to the desktop/workstation located in the office. This does not always require a VPN and these applications are normally installed on the user’s own desktop/workstation. What remote connectivity software allows is control of that office device (screen, mouse, keyboard) remotely; examples of these are Microsoft Remote Desktop, TeamViewer and VNC.
Remote connectivity software is useful for non-graphical office programmes like word processing, accounting packages, databases and emails but this is where construction and manufacturing businesses are different because of the applications they use. 3D applications can struggle to stay smooth and usable over standard remote connectivity software. To overcome this, a business can employ specialist software or hardware; examples include Teradaci PCoIP (PC over Internet Protocol) cards in a Dell workstation or HP RGS (Remote Graphics Software) at additional costs.
Firewalls and Internet Connections
The considerations don’t end here though if an entire company is to work remotely. These include the firewall and Internet connection of the business. For every user that connects they will use a VPN licence, firewall resource and Internet bandwidth, and each of these will have limitations that may be hard to increase. When it comes to Internet bandwidth, remote connections will use the upload bandwidth of a business more than download bandwidth, and for some businesses that only have a standard ADSL or fibre broadband connection they will have a lower upload than download speed. This could result in reduced performance for users or even be unable to serve remote connections for an entire company.
In today’s connected world, it is easy for non-IT business leaders to assume they could easily adapt to a sudden need to have everyone working from home. We do it ad-hoc don’t we, why can’t we all do it at the same time? But as we’ve discussed above, there are many challenges to enable the fully virtual office, and inevitably with it comes extra cost. These costs need to be balanced against the cost to the business of reduced productivity, and ability to serve customers.
If you would like to discuss how to enable your business to operate remotely, then please do not hesitate to contact us.
For guidance on working from home with your current licensing deployment, please read our blog "Autodesk Licensing and Working from Home