How I built it: Designing a WFH platform without the pressures of the pandemic

Published on October 13th, 2020

I recently published an article explaining how in the wake of COVID-19, my company and I enabled 5,500 employees to work remotely all in the course of one weekend. By chance, we had begun building a work-from-anywhere solution in 2018, making us proactively prepared for the pandemic. That is a unique experience that has triggered a lively response. After the article published, my inbox was full of friends and acquaintances asking me for more detail. “How did you design a network, security, and communications platform for remote work, and what specific approach did you use?” Here is more detail on how we built it, and the lessons learned as I look back now in 2020.

WFH & digital transformation drives network modernization

In December of 2017, our corporate network, consisting of over 60+ global locations, was struggling to provide consistent remote access and stable connectivity for our users globally. This was particularly a hindrance as we were actively developing a plan to expand our work-from-home capabilities. The business required a reliable global architecture that would:

  • Reduce network outages and cloud application disruptions, allowing secure remote access
  • Flex to meet the demands of our rapidly scaling e-commerce platform, and
  • Grow to meet the ever-changing needs of our digital transformation strategy.

The culmination of these challenges and goals resulted in a swift decision to begin the process of upgrading our global network. Our goal was to find a network service with global reach that could scale quickly with flexible bandwidth capabilities, but we also needed a partner who had a technical roadmap that aligned closely to ours. Most importantly, however, we wanted to create a platform that would incorporate AI for automation, while ensuring that security would be threaded throughout and an integral part of the final outcome. Masergy was selected as the vendor of choice due to their unique approach to burstable network circuits, flexible deployment plans, comprehensive security solutions, and overall technology innovation.

Key Lesson: Don’t focus on past problems–solve for the forward-facing challenges

Looking back at our 2017 challenges with 2020 hindsight, there is a key takeaway here. Today, companies everywhere are recognizing that their network is not fit for work-from-home. The pandemic has tested the IT infrastructure in a very public way, giving CIOs and executive boards an eye-opening moment. They thought their IT systems were in better shape than they are. But legacy networks and traditional security strategies are not suited to support the bandwidth demands of video conferencing and secure remote access from anywhere. (We just had the advantage of recognizing that ahead of time.)

With network and security deficiencies now in the spotlight, leaders are scrambling to address these underlying problems. But that’s just it. . . Fixing problems isn’t the right approach. Tackling individual issues with point solutions only leads to data overload and disconnected systems. Executives need to stop focusing on the problems of the past pandemic, and start focusing on solving the big strategic IT challenges:

  • Ensuring network reliability and cloud application performance all across the globe
  • Securing data everywhere with a cloud-centric and identity-focused approach (not just for work-from-home but for work-from-anywhere)
  • Leveraging AI to reduce complexity and automate network and security processes
  • Doing all that in one unified strategy and one platform for both the network and security

The pandemic’s problems are no different than these. When you tackle forward-facing challenges, the problems of 2020 will naturally dissolve. Whatever challenge comes next won’t matter.

OK, now back to the story.

Making the move to an SD-network: Connectivity strategy and design

With a clear focus on developing and utilizing SD-WAN, we approached the implementation through a tiered model designed to prioritize each business location, application, and user group as Tier 1 (business critical), Tier 2 (important), or Tier 3 (discretionary). This preparation helped us define our expectations for network service quality and reliability for each tier. Ultimately, it served as a blueprint for network connectivity design, guiding our SD-WAN routing rules so the network would deliver on our needs. You can learn more about this approach here.

Corporate documents helped us make these decisions. We reviewed our corporate risk mitigation strategy and plan, evaluated the number of key personnel at each location, as well as the roles and responsibilities of our employee groups. In the end, we identified roughly 300 people who were considered Tier 1 critical. After numerous meetings with key business leaders, our three tiers were agreed upon.

  • Tier 1 consisted of 11 key manufacturing, supply chain, financial, and corporate headquarters sites as well as business-critical applications, and leadership. Any disruption to any of these would have a direct and significant impact to the business. Each of our Tier 1 locations consisted of a burstable network circuit to manage network capacity challenges at peak times, along with a backup circuit in the event of an outage.
  • Tier 2 & 3 were given less priority due to the business functions. Each Tier 2 location would have a dedicated circuit, no backup circuit but capabilities to function without connectivity for a period of time. Tier 3 sites were straight internet connections that only needed access to our applications in the cloud.

The benefits of our new SD-network and approach resulted in:

  • Alignment with the strategic goals of the executive leadership team and board of directors: Using the corporate risk mitigation strategy to design our tiered model for network performance generated confidence that our IT infrastructure was built to deliver on desired business outcomes.
  • Cost savings with improved performance: By reducing our IT footprint and stabilizing our global infrastructure, we increased network reliability while significantly reducing our overall spend.

Key Lesson: Video conferencing issues are too narrow of an approach

In the rush to fix pandemic problems, it’s likely that IT leaders are focused on video conferencing applications and addressing the bandwidth issues for specific cloud applications. And, now is the perfect time to widen the scope of any WFH project, taking a broader look at network service and reliability challenges across the entire enterprise. Ensuring performance for all locations, applications, and users will result in a wider transformative impact. Plus, it can help enable the IT team to focus on the strategic work of security improvements and AI.

UC: Modernizing communications too

As the migration progressed, our team began discussing the idea of integrating voice services and cloud-based unified communications (UC) into our implementation plan. We were intrigued by the idea because this would allow us to reduce our global voice footprint, while providing additional features for our end users. We incorporated VOIP across over 20 locations including our critical Tier 1 sites. Our strategy included developing an approach that would be a hybrid in nature, including SIP trunking and utilizing existing PBXs in certain areas where it made business sense.

The benefits resulted in:

  • Eliminated the need for over 4000+ POTS lines resulting in savings of over $600,000 in global telecom charges for the business
  • Simplified invoicing and business processing of telecom billing by 70%
  • Provided a reliable, simple, and flexible service for our end users

Key Lesson: Take on UC and the network together

In hindsight, even though our UC approach was highly successful and met with a great deal of excitement from the business users, it would have been far less effort if we would have incorporated voice into our migration plan at the beginning of the project. The need to pivot at midstream added stress to the teams involved. We had to reshuffle the timeline for the migration plan. For IT leaders responding to the pandemic today, UC is more top-of-mind, and I encourage you to proactively plan for bundling UC network services into your SD-WAN and WAN modernization projects. The two initiatives fit hand-in-glove and are easier to tackle together rather than separate.

There’s more to the story! Our strategy also took a unified approach to address security and AI-powered automation, which will be my next blog article. Stay tuned for more!

Joseph Gracz

As the CIO/CISO for a fortune 1000 company, Joseph Gracz is an accomplished career IT leader who aligns his organization to targeted business outcomes. With over 20 years of experience in the Information Technology space, Joseph has been responsible for building end-to-end automated IT solutions, integrating and aligning ServiceNow, AI, and networking/security technologies. His background includes experience in energy, manufacturing, healthcare, financial services, and consumer packaged goods.

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