Rethinking Network Design: Remote-first Workforces Steer Infrastructure onto New Paths

The rise of remote work means the structure of networks is shifting from an on-premise focus to one that supports off-premise workers.

Remote-First Workforces Steer Infrastructure onto New PathsThe past year has certainly brought its fair share of life lessons. If you feel like you’ve spent the year looking for the horizon to see where we’ll land, you aren’t alone. It’s been one heck of a ride and one that’s made a far-reaching impact. It’s difficult to know exactly how recent situations have created lasting impressions. What will never be the same after 2020?

Some outcomes were expected—others not so much. One thing that certainly played a key role in the past year, and possibly for years to come, is a large-scale remote workforce. Last spring, organizations sent workers home in droves, and it’s still not entirely clear if they will ever return to the work environment they left. One Gartner CFO study reveals that 74% of those surveyed anticipated making the pivot to remote work permanent.

With so many workers stationed at home, there has been significant changes to technology needs as businesses pivot to support remote workers. One significant area that has been impacted is network design. The lack of warm bodies in an office means that the structure of networks is shifting from an on-premises focus to providing infrastructure that supports off-premises workers.

The Bandwidth Dilemma

One of the most obvious changes revolves around bandwidth needs. An office full of people using multiple devices requires lots of bandwidth. Traditionally, networks have largely been focused around providing much higher bandwidth in an effort to support workplace efficiency. In the workplace, latency causes operational delays, making bandwidth a key focus. But remote workers are reliant on their local providers, negating the need for such extensive bandwidth.

The question now becomes: How can you support your users when you aren’t supplying the bandwidth? Traditionally, there have been no expectations for residential network reliability. However, any downtime equals lost productivity and revenue, leaving many to wonder how they can support that kind of connectivity without dedicated internet circuits.

Remote Access and Secure Connections

Supporting an office full of users comes with a whole lot of baggage—you need switches, routers, servers, computers, wireless access points and the list goes on. But with a large remote workforce, your network requires different hardware in addition to solutions that provide secure remote access.

These solutions require a tighter focus on user devices and controls than in-office connections. User devices should be provisioned with secure connections to protect company data. Cybersecurity is still a primary concern, regardless of where your workforce resides. Companies with multiple offices frequently use dedicated circuits to connect branch offices to a central location. But this is costly and completely unreasonable when you have a large remote workforce.

4 Types of Remote Network Connections

How do you ensure security remains tops of mind with your workers spread geographically? Most companies are leaning more into remote options for network connections by using VPNs, virtual desktops, thin clients or cloud applications.

  1. Virtual Private Networks (VPNs)
  2. With many workers using remote connections, you must ensure your data is protected. Virtual private networks (VPNs) come in hardware and software versions. VPNs work by establishing a private connection between the end user’s device and your network. In this way, you secure your data by keeping traffic on your network.

    Another option that enhances the functionality of VPNs is split tunneling. Split tunneling allows you to route traffic through your network that involves sensitive or proprietary data, while routing other traffic, such as personal searches (a little internet shopping never hurt anyone) directly to the internet so it isn’t hogging your network.

  3. Virtual Desktops
  4. Organizations can also secure remote access through virtual desktops. With virtual desktops, end users access systems by using their device as a remote controller of sorts. With virtual desktops, users see a reflection of what they are accessing, but all information actually lives on another device. This way, you can access what you need without hosting it on the local device and sending data over unsecured connections.

  5. Thin Clients
  6. Another option you might choose is a thin client. Similar to virtual desktops, thin clients are devices that securely access resources that are stored in your environment. Because the resources and data are stored on your systems, you can limit access and ensure that data is not being shared outside of your organization.

  7. Cloud Applications
  8. Cloud applications are those that are offered via a hosted service, such as Microsoft 365 or G-Suite. Accessing these services limits the need for physical hardware. Also, when a secure approach is a shared responsibility between client and vendor, you can feel confident that you have done your due diligence to ensure a secure connection.

    Regardless of which option you select, it’s always wise to implement multi-factor authentication to limit the chance of breached systems.

On-Premises Physical Hardware: Time to Move On?

With remote work gaining more footing in business, cloud-based infrastructure offers the potential for cost savings and security enhancements. Regardless of where your workforce resides, you need a central location for managing and routing traffic. But how much of this needs to be on-prem and how much can be pushed out to vendors is a conversation that will continue to play out as the nature of the remote workforce continues to evolve.

Physical hardware isn’t just expensive to purchase, it is costly to maintain. The combined cost of buying and keeping the equipment cooled have forced many to seek out cloud-based vendors as their primary physical location. While certain downsides exist (including vendor lock-in, cost swings and a new range of security threats), many companies are moving to the cloud and significantly reducing their on-prem footprint.

Our technological landscape has made large-scale remote work viable as a long-term solution. Without the operational need to have so many people in an office, it’s very possible that organizations will continue to scale back their physical footprint. The extent to which this will continue will be determined by unique business needs and the role of emerging technology to support the ever-changing needs of our workforce.

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