The COVID-19 crisis has brought about transformative change in the way we do business. The adoption of digital technologies has accelerated by several years (1), and now, with post-pandemic recovery firmly in sight, organizations are moving swiftly towards the ‘new normal’ of the hybrid, Work from Anywhere (WFA) environment.
While this new blend of remote and on-site working promises increased productivity, greater access to talent, reduced costs, and better employee experiences, it risks putting increased pressure on an organization’s network. Now, a much larger distributed workforce needs access to data and applications from anywhere to anywhere. This includes an increased need for access to file-sharing, video conferencing, VDI, and SaaS applications.
Limitations of traditional networks
The hybrid WFA environment relies on agile, dynamic, reliable, secure, and ‘always on’ networks. While solutions were quickly developed overnight to deal with the sudden shift to remote work, many organizations are still dealing with poor application performance, poor end-user experience, reduced productivity and increased exposure to security risks. This is often because traditional enterprise networks struggle with the pace of change and simply don’t integrate well with today’s modern cloud applications.
In the hybrid work environment, many people will return to the office, where they will be collaborating with colleagues working remotely and accessing data and corporate applications in the data center and the cloud. Additionally, IoT (Internet of Things) devices that require network access will add further pressure to the network.
So, how can organizations ensure their networks are future-proofed for the long-term hybrid, WFA environment?
The rise of SD-WAN
According to IDC, the global SD-WAN infrastructure market will reach a staggering $5.25 billion in 2023, from $1.4 billion in 2018 (2). SD-WAN provides a wealth of benefits, including greater network agility, scalability and performance, reduced costs, enhanced security, and much more.
While SD-WAN holds clear benefits for those returning to the office, it also has additional benefits for those working from home. Key advantages of SD-WAN for remote workers are the improvements it makes to end-user experience, enhanced by faster data transfer, improved quality of video calls, and increased reliability.
Although most organizations clearly see the benefits of SD-WAN, agreeing on a business case and rolling out the infrastructure can be perceived as incredibly complex, leading to delays in implementation. Often borne from the fear of the project failing, nervousness around beginning the move to SD-WAN is understandable, especially when you consider that, according to Forbes, an eye-watering 84% of digital transformation projects fail (3).
Rethinking network operations for optimum performance
So, what measures do IT executives need to take to rethink their operations to accommodate the WFA environment?
Firstly, they need to fully understand what network performance is required to support employees working remotely and in the office. This will ensure they have clear business outcomes in mind when they set out to make changes. Enhancing performance may not always be the priority; protecting the network performance the company already has is equally important.
There are specific characteristics that represent practical benchmarks for optimum network performance levels, and they include:
With SD-WAN, home internet links are protected and enhanced, which ensures remote workers, particularly ‘power users’, have the bandwidth they need at all times, regardless of where they’re located. This means they can move between locations with no risk to their system performance.
Data compression and deduplication
In terms of employees working from a branch location, many networks have multiple instances of the same data, and deduplication alleviates the network bandwidth burden. It does this by ensuring that data is only stored in one place, while data caching keeps business-critical assets accessible via a hosted server, enabling system users to download them faster.
Remote workers typically suffer from being on a shared connection. Data compression helps with this regardless of how many other users connect to the home internet connection and SD-WAN will protect the employee’s experience. Additionally, it also helps reduce the cost of taking data out of the cloud.
Data compression and deduplication are valuable in themselves for boosting application performance, but this is not a full solution unless you have a fuller understanding of protocols and reduced latency effects. SD-WAN can be used to prioritize protocols such as voice and video or traditional applications that are not optimizable using WAN or SaaS optimization, providing the crucial performance uplift for end users.
While application acceleration is no longer a universal requirement for most organizations, critical applications or user groups can still benefit. The key is in being selective as to where and how you deploy it. SD-WAN makes this possible and provides the visibility needed to assess the value.
Better visibility of applications with SD-WAN is vital to giving end users better service. Having greater visibility helps to detect and resolve application performance issues before the problem escalates or affects users and stakeholders.
Zero Trust Security
The hybrid WFA environment requires security at the point of need, and when adopted, companies must evolve their security from a perimeter-based framework to a Zero Trust-based framework at the edge. If organizations already embrace direct Internet access (DIA) to route traffic to the cloud instead of through a data center, it also makes sense to employ a security architecture with the same approach.
Consolidation of on-site hardware
SD-WAN also enables the consolidation of assets, such as routers, switches, and firewalls. By minimizing their remote office hardware footprint, companies can save on running costs and move towards hyper-converged infrastructures.
As companies evolve and embrace the hybrid work environment, their networks also need to evolve. Only then can organizations be fully prepared for long-term growth and profitability in the WFA era.