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Networks Must Change to Support Mainstreaming of Working from Home

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Work from Home
(Image by Joshua Miranda from Pixabay)

Working from home is not new. This writer has been using a home office since 2006. However, before the COVID-19 pandemic, remote work had been more of a perk than a way of doing business. Now millions upon millions of people are working from home, and many of them are never going back to an office. This new reality means that enterprise networks must evolve.

Enterprise Management Associates (EMA) recently published the research report “Enterprise WAN Transformation: SD-WAN, SASE, and the Pandemic,” based on a survey of 303 IT professionals. This research found that, prior to the pandemic, the average enterprise had about 14% of its employees working from home on a regular basis. Now 64% of employees are working from home. More than half of these enterprises expect their work-from-home populations to remain elevated after the pandemic ends. This permanent shift means that IT organizations need to adjust network architecture and network operations.

Evolving networks with SD-WAN and SASE

Software-defined WAN (SD-WAN) and Secure Access Service Edge (SASE) will be essential technologies for supporting an architectural shift toward a work-from-home network. One of the foundational elements of SD-WAN is the creation of an overlay for secure site-to-site connectivity across any network. Theoretically, SD-WAN can be extended to home offices, and enterprises in our research recognize this opportunity. Eighty-four percent of enterprises told us that SD-WAN could support business continuity during the pandemic, and the primary opportunity with SD-WAN is the enablement of secure connectivity for home offices via an extension of the SD-WAN overlay.

Many research participants also told us that they expect to apply the WAN remediation capabilities of SD-WAN solutions to home offices. For instance, some vendors offer forward error correction on their appliances, which could improve the home office user experience. In the future, some vendors might introduce software clients with such capabilities.

SASE is an emerging technology that will also support a new network architecture. The concept of SASE is still emerging, with few vendors offering a complete solution, but right now, it's best described as a cloud-delivered integration of SD-WAN, secure remote access, and network security. In our new research, 82% of IT professionals believe SASE can support business continuity during the pandemic. The primary opportunity is secure remote access, such as a cloud-delivered alternative to traditional remote VPN solutions.

EMA has observed many SD-WAN vendors evolving their solutions during the pandemic. Some have extended their overlays by discounting appliances or introducing new software clients. Others have accelerated their pivot toward SASE by integrating a secure remote access solution with SD-WAN.

Evolving network operations

On the operations side of things, EMA found that IT organizations are prioritizing two key points of visibility for supporting the home office user experience. First, 67% of IT organizations will focus on application health and performance. This focus makes sense because many IT organizations are already equipped to monitor their applications, particularly those hosted within their own data centers. Cloud applications, especially SaaS applications, may require new tools and processes. For instance, with the growing importance of conferencing applications like Zoom, IT organizations may acquire new tools for directly monitoring such a SaaS service.

The other priority for monitoring home office user experience is the availability and performance of local internet service providers (ISPs). ISP performance has been inconsistent during the pandemic, with remote workers contending with members of their households and their neighbors for bandwidth. In addition to remote work, remote learning, telemedicine, online gaming, and streaming services are all experiencing all-time highs, which has strained ISP networks. Moving forward, IT organizations need visibility into these networks to protect the home office user experience.

ISP visibility will require new enterprise-grade monitoring tools to scale support of home workers. A troubleshooting process that relies on an end-user running a speed test on their local ISP won't scale. For instance, an IT organization might have hundreds of users simultaneously affected by the same ISP problem. Rather than collect the results of individual speed tests, IT administrators would benefit from an end-to-end view of ISP performance, where they can proactively identify trouble before end-user productivity is undermined. A tool that passively monitors internet traffic could help here, or an active monitoring tool that generates test traffic from agents on client devices could offer a more centralized and systematic alternative to the tests performed by an individual speed test application.

EMA believes that enterprise networks will evolve significantly post-pandemic, not just in the home office. Data center networks and certainly campus and branch office networks, too.  We will research this topic extensively in 2021, so stay tuned.