How to Keep Personnel Working from Home Safe and Productive with SD-WAN

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Now that COVID-19 has been with us for several weeks, office workers and other professionals have largely settled into their work from home (WFH) routines. 

Many people don’t have the luxury of a job they can perform from home, and 10% of the homes in the US still don’t have broadband. But for the workers with the ability to WFH, the home broadband network has become mission-critical—not just for their families, but for their employers as well.

A mere handful of months ago, neither the WFH denizens nor their broadband providers had any inkling of the burden that would be placed on the humble home network. Not only are both parents at home – perhaps both WFH themselves – but their children are home as well, leveraging similar videoconferencing and collaboration tools as their parents to complete their schoolwork.

Employers are certainly breathing a collective sigh of relief that they’ve been able to transition to WFH across their organizations. However, two issues still keep them up at night: security and quality of service (QoS). Here’s how to get a handle on these risks – and what to do about them.

The WFH Security Challenge

“Zoombombing” – where a stranger breaks into a Zoom meeting – has been in the news, but this peculiar phenomenon is but the tip of the WFH security iceberg.

In reality, WFH compounds any security concern that would apply to employees working in the office. Are they accessing confidential or sensitive information? Do they have access to internal corporate apps or their company’s cloud-based SaaS apps? Are bad actors able to compromise their Wi-Fi hotspots or Internet connections to steal credentials or other corporate information?

The IT organization will have put in place numerous controls that protect employees and their computers and other devices when they work from the office. With WFH, those controls may no longer be adequate.

What about virtual private networks (VPNs)? VPNs have long been the go-to answer to securing the connections between remote workers and the corporate mothership. In today’s WFH environment, however, they often fall short. 

VPNs provide a secure point-to-point connection between the user’s device and the corporate network, but don’t provide direct access to any cloud-based apps or other assets. VPNs can also be difficult to use, and the corporate VPN infrastructure may not scale sufficiently to handle the sudden influx of simultaneous WFH users.

Quality of Service – As Important as Security

The VPN’s most significant shortcoming, however, is that it doesn’t provide adequate QoS controls. The most obvious cause: family contention over bandwidth. 

Which is more important: your Zoom conference with a client or your teenager’s Ariana Grande infatuation? Business uses of your limited Internet resource are clearly more important. But what about your kids’ schoolwork? Now it’s a balancing act.

Complicating the QoS problem: business QoS concerns are not uniform. WFH call center reps have higher QoS requirements perhaps than a typical office worker – and they may even be using zero client virtual desktops. 

Video quality may not be a top priority for most office jobs, while in other situations, video is mission-critical. Accessing and working with other large files may be uncommon for most people, but for civil engineers or radiologists, rapid, efficient access to large files and the applications that work with them is an essential part of their workday.

In other words, supporting a WFH workforce is far more complicated than making sure employees have laptops and an Internet connection. Depending on the nature of the business and the roles of the employees in question, the business intent for employee connectivity can vary from situation to situation – and VPNs are simply not up to the challenge.

SD-WAN to the Rescue

Software-defined wide-area networking (SD-WAN) products are best known for supporting remote office networks. For example, banks use SD-WANs to connect their branches to their headquarters, and large retailers do the same for their stores.

However, SD-WAN vendors like Silver-Peak offer products that are well-suited for WFH scenarios. Silver Peak offers two such solutions: The Unity EdgeConnect SD-WAN edge platform Ultra-Small (US) and Extra-Small (XS) appliances. 

The EdgeConnect US appliance is a bit larger than a deck of cards and supports a bandwidth capacity of up to 100 Mbps (enough for an inexpensive home bandwidth connection). The XS appliance is a bit larger and supports up to 200 Mbps (premium home Internet service or home office service).

The WFH user simply plugs the EdgeConnect device into their router/Wi-Fi hotspot and then plugs a wired connection to their laptop into the device. Alternatively, they can plug the hotspot itself into the device to put all Wi-Fi-connected devices on their corporate network.

From the perspective of the WFH worker, that’s all there is to the installation. The company’s central IT office takes care of the provisioning, setup, and management of each device using the Unity Orchestrator management software.

The result: network security and QoS as per the business intent for each WFH user’s particular circumstances – all controlled centrally, as though each worker were physically in the office.

The Intellyx Take

Using SD-WAN technology to connect WFH personnel to the corporate network isn’t simply an example of software-defined networking in action. It’s actually part of the edge computing story.

Edge computing begins with the network to be sure, but is more about supporting application-based workloads across a variety of different types of devices and locations by abstracting the provisioning and management of those devices.

In the WFH scenario, the focus appears to be on the network. But from the perspective of the WFH employee, the focus is on the applications and corporate information they use every day to do their jobs. 

In fact, enabling WFH with SD-WAN is likely to be a one-way transition, as employees will now be equally or more productive at home, even after the virus passes. 

In this new normal, businesses can rest assured that with the help of SD-WAN, they can deliver the security and QoS necessary to support WFH moving forward.

Watch this webcast to learn how to maintain network connectivity through periods of network congestion and brownouts.

Copyright © Intellyx LLC. Silver-Peak is an Intellyx customer. Intellyx retains final editorial control of this article.

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.