As the COVID-19 pandemic event unfolds, we are seeing more and more of our customers (universities and other organisations in the research and education sector) implementing work from home policies to help limit the spread of the virus and protect themselves, their families and colleagues. This push to remote working is at a scale not seen before and is a new challenge for IT teams to manage.
Remote working connectivity
One of the biggest challenges to ensuring business continuity with staff working from home is within the networking domain, given the network is the primary enabler for remote working. Moving from 20% of staff working from home, 20% of the time during ‘business as usual’ times (a generous estimate), to the majority of staff working from home, the majority of the time is resulting in scale never seen before. Most of us in the networking industry don’t typically have the budget or time to real world test systems at this scale.
AARNet staff are well experienced with working remotely, and we also provide services that are relied upon by our customers to support remote working (including Zoom). Our staff also work with customers on their challenges including some of the technologies and solutions that can support remote working, so we wanted to take this opportunity to share some insight and considerations for networking and connectivity for remote working.
Some of these considerations or recommendations may have significant time or cost implication, requiring senior sponsorship and financial support which may not easy to come by at this or other times. For these and other considerations or recommendations, we realise that without unlimited time or budget, gold standards are not possible or feasible, but as the saying goes don’t let perfect get in the way of good. For some of these considerations, we will endeavour to provide a range of recommendations or alternatives.
The information in this article aims to be useful to you now as well as when your organisation is operating under normal business conditions in future.
Internet access for remote working
Before we even discuss access to your organization specifically (your apps, DC, Cloud or other specific ‘corporate’ access), we generally first need to ensure our users have basic internet access. This enables corporate remote access, remote productivity and supports various communications and team collaboration capabilities.
Home broadband access
While many of your users hopefully have some form of home broadband connectivity, the current technology mix available can cause issues for some users in terms of performance, reliability, etc. Many organisations also don’t necessarily provide or have consistent mobile telephony or mobile broadband connectivity options for users either.
Here are some considerations for internet access to best support users with remote working capabilities:
Help your users connect
Your organization may already support staff with subsidies for some or all of their home broadband costs, but sometimes, this may not be feasible. Here are some alternative approaches where you can act as a trusted advisor to your users:
- Consider guiding staff on recommended speed tiers (e.g. matched to intended usage), technologies (including possible NBN alternatives in regional areas, e.g. fixed wireless providers), or providers (e.g. industry recommended providers that proactively manage NBN backhaul or independent comparison sites).
- Consider discussions with NBN or other providers regarding your requirements to sign up mass numbers of users – volume discounting or loyalty benefits may be applicable at certain scale. Do you already have a preferred mobile carrier you can partner with?
- Advise staff to seek advice from financial advisors around potential tax deductions for home office expenses such as internet.
Consider publishing basic guidance or directing users to published guidance on optimizing their home broadband and wireless setups. Not everyone is a network engineer!
Resiliency of connectivity
One of our main concerns in network design is typically resiliency of some kind, whether leveraging redundancy or other forms of backup. We’ll discuss more on Mobile broadband in a moment, but mobile broadband could be leveraged as a form of resiliency for your users, by providing an alternative short term connectivity option.
- As we know, mobile broadband is typically higher cost with limited data volumes, so this isn’t often a longer term “always on” option, however it can be a tool available to users when needed.
- Some carriers offer mobile broadband backup services as part of their home broadband bundles, with dedicated cellular modems built into broadband routers or sim cards provided for this purpose. These carriers and solutions may be worth investigating for recommending to your users.
- Whilst many users will know how to enable a wireless hotspot on their mobiles, many current generation broadband modems/routers also provide a USB connection where a mobile broadband dongle can be connected as a backup. These often also support connecting a smart phone as a mobile broadband modem also. Mobiles can also often be plugged directly into PCs to be used as wired mobile broadband hotspots. AARNet’s experience with remote working often demonstrates wired hotspot can be more reliable than wireless in these cases.
- Another useful approach that may not be obvious to users, is when mobile signals are not as strong at their home workstation location. This is where wireless hotspot or wiring to the modem may come in handy, if the hotspot can be located somewhere with better mobile signal, within wifi range of the workstation (or the wired broadband router is somewhere with better mobile signal). Again, providing some basic guidance for your users to optimize their setup could be hugely beneficial given the skill and comfort range with technology of your users.
- Consider how requests for this type of advice may be offered or optimized – can you train service desk staff in the basics to free up network SMEs?
Under more normal conditions, when staff are working from remote locations outside of their home, they will hopefully have some form of wifi access available to them (e.g. Eduroam, hotel wifi etc.). Mobile broadband can however be a useful capability now and in future, e.g. decreasing reliance on wifi availability, providing a resiliency option. Even without the current situation, mobile broadband has its place in a catalog of connectivity solutions for remote workers, along with providing some of the resiliency vectors for home connectivity discussed above.
As per the home broadband point above, ideally your organization already has a mobile carrier partner selected and provides a data enabled smartphone or plan to staff. Again, this may not always be the case, or may only be provided at present for certain staff, or not be feasible.
- Consider some of the above discussed home broadband approaches in a mobile broadband context. Guidance on carriers, plans, hotspot or dongle devices, and using/connecting these to user workstations (e.g. notebooks, tablets, etc.) could be hugely useful. Similarly, providing or linking to financial considerations can be useful, as can working with your partner carriers to negotiate better pricing for them.
- Consider mobile broadband capabilities when evaluating your supported device catalog for new workstation options for your organization. A range of notebooks currently in market provide inbuilt 4G mobile broadband capabilities (typically termed WWAN, Wireless WAN) with SIM slots. With the rise in use of eSIM and vendors announcing new models with inbuilt 5G eSIM, now is a good time to consider this as part of your remote working strategy.
Some notes about current internet connectivity issues:
- Some home broadband and mobile broadband carriers are now making special announcements about both uplifting performance and easing data volume limitations to support the large number of customers they know are now having to work from home. Again, guidance for users around this is invaluable – if your preferred/recommended home and mobile broadband carrier partners are not doing this, it’s time to have the conversations with them or consider pivot.
- The current unprecedented situation does mean that performance issues are being seen, due to unexpected scale of reliance on these services. Current advice from AARNet trusted partners and experienced staff is that this may well get worse before it very likely will improve. Patience is important in this regard – as we know well in the networking industry, infrastructure upgrades and changes take care and planning to achieve with minimal disruption to customers. Engage with your users and advise on these factors to ease their transition to remote working.
The above remote internet connectivity considerations are of course focused on connectivity itself, not general practices for working from home in terms of workstation setups, routines etc.
Other useful resources from around the web
There have been many fantastic articles already published on these topics recently, which we’ll include a few of below (and there are additional general useful links and resources at the end of this article). We know you’re busy already so hopefully these provide some short cuts for you (some of these may be out of date or not consider the current COVID-19 situation – content is out of AARNet control of course, so please consider within your own context!).
Author: Paul Italiano, AARNet Enterprise Services Technical Consultant – Networks
Disclaimer: This is general advice only and is not intended to be address individual circumstances. Each person should conduct their own evaluation of using any product or service.