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Work From Home: A Year in Review

The Delta variant certainly put many return-to-the-office plans on hold. And Omicron’s emergence is not helping matters. As a result, most companies are heading into a second year of supporting work-from-home initiatives.

Given that this is becoming the status quo for the foreseeable future, it makes sense to assess where things stand by taking a look back at some of the issues, developments, and trends that dominated the field over the last year.

Delivering access and applications

Some decades-old technologies got renewed interest. Many organizations used virtual private networks (VPNs) to support relatively small sets of remote users before the pandemic. In 2021, attention shifted to enterprise VPNs solutions. Such solutions vary greatly from vendor to vendor and provider to provider. But increasingly, there is a need for enterprise VPN solutions that provide easy-to-use dashboards that administrators can use to granularly manage user accounts and access privileges.

Cloud desktops have emerged as an alternative to VPNs for certain situations. One factor that may push organizations in one direction over another is the ongoing chip shortage. Companies are experiencing long wait times when buying laptops to replace outdated equipment or support new employees. One way around the issue is to use a cloud desktop service. Such services let companies use existing (lower powered) computers while delivering applications and desktop environments to those computers.  

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Broadband service issues

Broadband performance, in general, was an issue as more people remained home during the year. One aspect was that key personnel could not afford poor-quality or lower-performing connections if they were to conduct business from home. The issue is complex since a user’s experience can be impacted by Wi-Fi coverage in the home, family members' use of bandwidth, or a low-performing broadband service. The problems were so severe, some IT organizations were considering placing dedicated networking hardware in the homes of executives. Managing hundreds of devices in remote locations is normally the last thing any IT department wants.

Another performance issue that emerged was perhaps was a bit of a surprise. The wide-scale use of conferencing brought to light that many broadband services are designed for content consumption. The simple fact is that most providers offer much higher download speeds than upload speeds. For typical use, that was often good enough. Certainly, there were some users, such as video editors and graphic designers, that needed high upload speeds. But your typical office worker (and home user) was adequately served by common asymmetrical services. Unfortunately, that is no longer the case. According to one provider, upstream traffic on its network jumped 56% year-over-year from 2019 to 2020. As such, users increasingly need symmetric internet services.

One other issue is that broadband service availability varies greatly throughout the country. As was known well before the pandemic, many rural areas are underserved. As a result, interest grew in satellite services such as those offered by Starlink, HughesNet, and Viasat. These services are provided via low-earth orbiting satellites (LEOs). And in many cases, the offerings are a work in progress as the providers are currently deploying more satellites to serve greater geographical areas. In the past, such services were considered the last resort for rural consumers. In 2020, these services started getting the attention of enterprise users.

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Security issues evolve

Rapidly connecting remote workers during the pandemic provided “good enough” solutions that are now causing security nightmares. While companies tried to deal with certain issues caused by remote access limitations, they may have opened themselves to cyberattacks, especially as cyber attackers become more sophisticated.

A good example of the complications that companies encounter because of today’s new way to work is what happens when the remote worker comes back into the office. When the pandemic closed offices, businesses found many office workers did not have company-issued laptops. The companies needed to quickly deploy laptops that were easy to configure, use, and manage. As a result, many companies issued Chromebooks, which had not been widely used in a corporate setting before the pandemic. That was fine when the device was in the user's home, but there were many security issues when these devices were brought into the office.

Aside from the security implications associated with this technology shift, network performance is a top concern as employees work from random locations and with any number of devices. As a result, it’s put a premium on network visibility. Having visibility has traditionally been hard, but today, organizations need to give remote users managed devices that sit in line to the network or track performance based on access to the data center or cloud workload.

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Going forward, Network Computing will strive to keep you up to date on these and other issues related to supporting employees working from home in 2022. Follow our work-from-home coverage in the new year.