By Guy Matthews
Editor of NetReporter
Enterprises have relied on the resilience of their networks as never before during the COVID-19 crisis. What sort of business continuity provisions will they need to survive and prosper as we move on from the pandemic into an uncertain future?
If your business survived the COVID crisis, then now is the time to work out how to get through the next phase – what analysts and experts are calling the ‘next normal’.
It’s time to consider the role that business continuity and collaboration will play in an uncertain landscape. Are you ready to keep your business going during a future crisis, and do you have the capabilities in place to ensure employee engagement and productivity?
Brad Casemore, Research Vice President, Datacenter Networks with independent analyst firm IDC argues that there is more to the challenge than just having a handful of contingency plans up your sleeve that many or may not ever get to see the light of day. It’s more about embracing what he is calling ‘continuous preparedness’.
Throughout the COVID crisis, IDC has been conducting a rolling survey, asking enterprises across a range of vertical markets how they are managing and looking at how they have been reprioritizing their IT investments to meet an uncertain and possible unstable future. Technology, argues Casemore, has a central role in future continuity and stability.
“In the early stages of any crisis of this sort, the focus is on business continuity, then you move on to ensuring that the technologies you’re investing in and implementing are providing an ROI,” he points out. “Then you get into operational resilience as you move through a recessionary period. As you begin to ascend the curve you are investing to accelerate your way into growth, and finally you are at the stage of recovery and innovation. At the moment we’re still in the early stages, with the focus on business continuity.”
Enterprises, believes Casemore, do at least now fully appreciate that unforeseen events can and do arise. “Unprepared organizations will always suffer the most, and there are degrees of preparedness,” he explains. “Business continuity and resilience should not be limited to a contingency plan that sits in a drawer. There must be a preparedness posture that is actionable at any given time and it should give organizations the agility, flexibility and responsiveness that they’ll need. Investments here must span a wide range of technologies.”
We thought it would be useful to ask some of the leading players in the tech space how their organization survived the pandemic, and get them to tell us how they are now coping and planning in the face of the ‘next normal’.
Pathmal Gunawardana is Head of Americas with global carrier TATA Communications. He recalls that when the pandemic struck, his company had two parallel priorities, one being employees, their safety and health, and the other was its huge base of multinational customers: “We are a digital ecosystem enabler, and a lot of our customers do business with us in every part of the world,” he explains. “The issue was how do we serve these customers, and how do we make sure that the continuity of their business happens. As a global provider with presence in 160 countries in the world, we have customers calling us up saying they need bandwidth here or added resources there.”
Gunawardana says he doesn’t think he could ever have defined the pandemic experience before it happened, but says he is very pleased with how the interdependencies between the company’s partners worked out: “I think the entire industry came together. It was a big lesson learned for all of us and from my point of view, we managed collectively within the ecosystem to help each other out.”
As for future outlook, Gunawardana believes the new normal is yet to be defined: “It’s evolving,” he says. “And we have all surprised ourselves with what we have accomplished in the last three to four months. It’s human adaptability that will sustain us as we move forward, driving that innovation to accelerate our digital transformation.”
Kevin Herrin is VP, Infrastructure Platform Engineering with Dell Technologies. He says that Dell has a fairly robust crisis management team structure, drawn from across the organization: “At first, when the crisis broke, we were very focused on China, where we have business and a lot of employees, and at how to deal with China from a technology perspective,” he explains. “We were focused on our networks, and at how to keep homeworkers connected to VPN capabilities in Asia to keep our business operations moving forward. We were helped by a big investment we’ve been making an SD-WAN across the world, in a lot of cases giving us almost 10X the bandwidth we had before for better cost.”
Veresh Sita, Chief Digital Information Officer with F5 Networks, has some very personal recollections of how the pandemic first struck home in earnest: “In the early days of the crisis, I was driving back home from a ski resort with the family on a Sunday evening,” he recalls. “I had to pull up into a supermarket parking lot to take a call with my leadership team, where we invoked our crisis management and business continuity plan. I remember saying, I hope this call turns out to be much ado about nothing. It wasn’t. But as it turns out, acting fairly early on was one of the best decisions we could have made. Our operating philosophy was all about what we call a human first approach, and that is how we will face future challenges.”
Several tech players appear to have found that surviving earlier crises, albeit not on the scale of COVID-19, had given them a degree of readiness. Dan Krantz, Vice President, Chief Information Officer, Keysight Technologies, remembers how late in 2017, the company’s headquarters at Santa Rosa in California was affected by a wildfire that came out of the surrounding hills causing significant damage to infrastructure: “We had to exercise crisis management back then, and did a pretty significant retrospective on what would happen at scale globally across our multinational operations,” he says. “This meant when the pandemic hit we had already dusted off our crisis response, learning to put employee health and safety as the number one priority. As the Corona crisis unfolded in January, we put this into motion, and sent everybody to work from home. We’d also already re-engineered our entire global network to be based on SD-WAN. I think we are ready for what comes next.”
On the other side of the country, a different kind of disaster had already tested the resilience of hybrid cloud data services company NetApp. Bill Miller, Chief Information Officer, recalls how the yearly threat of hurricanes had driven business continuity provision at its Customer Support Center in North Carolina: “Thanks to previous evacuations, we had decided to move our North American customer service operations, allowing agents to work from home work or on the road,” he explains. “The pandemic shift was therefore a natural outgrowth of some of the things we’ve done before. Not all crises are the same, but they provide you with a muscle memory that helps you to deal with the next crisis.”
Miller also points to the major presence NetApp has in its Bangalore office as an example of continuity in action: “When the crisis hit, people could not get permits to go to the office under any circumstances for several weeks,” he says. “We continued to hire and onboard employees in India during this period. We wanted to keep up the momentum of the hiring process. We benefitted from a cloud-based utility that offered a virtualized, secure, enclosed desktop. We were able to get people working with that.”
Having the right networking technology was what got many organizations through the crisis, and is the backbone of their continuity plans going forward. Russ Currie, Vice President, Enterprise Strategy with NETSCOUT is one of many people we spoke to who had reason to be grateful for recently deployed next generation networking solutions: “We had just finished a major redesign of our network, going to an SD-WAN implementation,” he explains. “This put us in front of the curve, and looking robust in terms of our compute and networking capabilities. From the security angle, we were starting to see more targeted DDoS attacks aimed at our customers’ VPN resources, perhaps small in scale, but very focused. It’s a challenge to be able to protect yourself in a home working environment. An enterprise might be protected on the content delivery network side, but what about the private IP space? That’s a challenge as well.”
When a crisis hits, no one will fault you for your response, as long as you have a plan, reflects Christina Kite, Vice President, Global Business Strategy & Analytics with Oracle. Even with good plans in place, Oracle still found itself in unfamiliar territory, she recalls: “It perhaps wasn’t known, until we had to execute some of our plans, how much interdependency there can be within an organization,” she says. “For example, when considering employees, a continuity plan for succession becomes very important. Plus with people working from home, how do you make sure your employees are not only productive, but safe? As well as those risks, you also have to consider security breaches, and what your response would be. I’m really proud of Oracle and the way we looked at these issues very systemically. And I really appreciated the focus on our people. Because if you take care of your people, they’ll take care of your customers.”