Reshaping the network for a post-COVID world

Even after the pandemic ends, WFH won’t — at least not immediately. New IDC research gives us a glimpse into how work from home is changing the corporate network and how companies are already planning to reshape their networks for the post-pandemic era.

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Enterprise network in a post-COVID world

Remember George Bailey’s famous bank run speech in It’s a Wonderful Life? “The money’s not here,” his character tells panicked customers trying to pull their savings out of Bailey Bros. Building and Loan. “Your money’s in Joe’s house that’s right next to yours, and in the Kennedy house and Mrs. Maitland’s house and a hundred others.”

Jimmy Stewart could make the same impassioned speech to a bunch of CIOs in 2021. With millions of employees still working from home, companies have stretched the limits of their enterprise networks — the data, security, performance and more — all the way to Joe’s house, the Kennedy apartment and Mrs. Maitland’s condo, among other remote locations.

New IDC research gives us a glimpse into how WFH is changing corporate networks and how companies are already planning to reshape their networks for the post-COVID era.

(Still) working from home

When IDC surveyed 250 enterprises in December, it asked them what percentage of their staff they expect to work remotely (either full-time or in a flex/hybrid work arrangement) after the pandemic. The average response was 52.5 per cent.

So even after the pandemic ends, WFH won’t — at least not immediately.

“That’s a key aspect of how networks will be built, designed and deployed,” Rohit Mehra, IDC’s VP of network infrastructure, said during a recent webcast of the survey findings. “You want that enterprise-like experience when you’re supporting your enterprise employees, even remotely.”

Network changes

This push to improve the WFH experience has fuelled just about every major change organizations have made to their networks over the past year. According to IDC, since the pandemic began:

  • 34% of enterprises have increased their use of automation tools
  • 29% have relied more heavily on cloud-based platforms to enable remote management of enterprise networks
  • 25% have increased their use of collaboration platforms
  • 24% say they now have greater need for visibility and analytics in network operations and performance
  • 23% had to extend enterprise networking policies to remote/WFH employees

Almost one year into the pandemic, how well are these efforts working?

According to IDC’s survey, these are the biggest WFH-related challenges still plaguing enterprise networks 10 months after the first wave of lockdowns:

  • security risks: 44%
  • remote tech support: 42%
  • unreliable home Wi-Fi: 36%
  • lack of ability to remotely manage home devices: 34%
  • support for video conferencing: 32%

The security issue was highlighted in another survey question, when enterprises admitted almost one-third of their WFH staff are using VPNs either “infrequently” or “less than half the time.” About 16 per cent said their remote employee traffic is not secured at all, by VPN or any other means.

If security is still the top network concern, employee experience comes in at a close second. In December, enterprises said 70 per cent of their WFH staff reported performance problems with business-critical apps either “daily” or “multiple times per week.” That’s up from 62 per cent in the June survey.

No wonder companies are already making plans for …

The post-COVID network

the post-COVID era network

Since organizations believe WFH will continue long after the pandemic ends, they’re starting to invest in network enhancements to deal with the ongoing security, performance and connectivity issues they’ve been grappling with for the past year.

As Mehra phrased it during the IDC webcast, “network admins are starting to look beyond full COVID to look at the landscape and how they want to be navigating for the next normal.”

Based on IDC’s survey, here’s how much enterprise spending will increase during 2021 to plan for the ‘next normal’:

  • cloud-managed networking: 10%
  • remote work solutions: 9.4%
  • WLAN/Wi-Fi: 9.1%
  • UC&C: 8.7%
  • network management tools (visibility, analytics, automation, etc.): 8.3%
  • data centre networking: 8.1%
  • hybrid/multi-cloud access (connectivity to IaaS): 8%
  • WAN (including SD-WAN): 8%

Here’s what surveyed enterprises named as the top priorities for their networking strategy in 2021:

  1. more flexible consumption/as-a-service models for network infrastructure
  2. better connectivity to, and management of, cloud-based platforms (IaaS and Saas)
  3. better support for remote/WFH employees
  4. simplified, consistent network and security policies for multiple public clouds
  5. network redesign caused by changes to physical workspaces (such as office capacity reductions and adjustment of spaces)
  6. integrated management of network and security

IDC says there’s a more cohesive way to tackle various WFH network challenges, a concept it calls the ‘branch of one.’

Architectural shifts

The main goal of branch of one is to re-architect networks so remote workers enjoy the same security and application performance they would get on-premise. IDC says branch of one will be enabled by CaaS (Connectivity-as-a-Service), a model that bundles bandwidth, security, collaboration and mobile services into a solution for remote workers.

IDC says branch of one network architecture could include:

  • a cloud-based platform for centrally managing enterprise network policies
  • a VPN
  • centralized security (next-gen firewall, CASB, IPS/IDL, URL filtering)
  • visibility and analytics tools for monitoring application performance and user experience
  • Wi-Fi AP with remote management capabilities
  • providing subsidized broadband or wireless backup connectivity

The final slide of the webcast emphasized how the network must transform (yet again) to prepare for the ‘next normal’: “Managing the network is now table stakes. Tools must now prioritize user experience, cloud oversight and security advancement.”

In other words, Joe and his coworkers (the Kennedys and the Maitlands) should be able to do their work effectively, easily and securely, and feel like somehow, they really are in this thing together. The new challenge for enterprise IT? Making that happen for all of them, whether they’re six feet, six houses or six continents apart.

Images: Drazen_/iStock; Eoneren/iStock

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