What’s it like being an IT pro who is on the front line of transitioning their enterprise to a home-office model so users can work from home instead of at the office because of the coronavirus crisis? That’s just what Martin Urwaleck had to do recently — and in a hurry! Martin manages the IT operations for a public company in Austria and he shared his experience with me about setting up a remote work solution in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. We hope that other TechGenix readers can benefit from the challenges he faced and how he handled them.
MITCH: Thanks, Martin, for agreeing to let me interview you about what it’s like being an IT pro who is on the front lines of an enterprise that quickly needs to transition their users to work from home because of the COVID-19 situation.
MARTIN: Thank you for having me here. Yes — it’s a challenging situation, but it’s possible.
MITCH: Martin, let’s start with the big picture. What’s happening in your city and country with the coronavirus situation, and how has it been affecting you and your family personally?
MARTIN: Well, Austria was one of the first countries in the EU that established very strict rules, closed down everything nonessential and urged people to stay at home. From the first indicators of the situation to come until most of our workforce was at home was about two weeks.
MITCH: What impact has COVID-19 had on your own day-to-day IT work at your company?
MARTIN: Personally, I am not impacted in my work life since my wife is a teacher and has to work from home. She can take care of our three boys during the day. The only difference is that I no longer use public transport but go to work by car. Which is OK for me since the streets are nearly empty. It feels a little like Sunday at 10 p.m. when driving!
MITCH: Moving on now to the subject of setting up employees for remote work, did you have to start from zero with this project or was it already underway? Was there already some sort of infrastructure in place to enable users to work from home, or did you have to quickly plan and design something from scratch?
MARTIN: Yes and no. We already had some users with notebooks and VPN connections, and when I started at this job, I sped up the transition from desktop to notebook. So, this was one way to solve my problems — adding notebooks. However, everyone here was doing this and all my suppliers had stock-outs, especially since China did not deliver anymore. And someone had to set up these machines — we already have most of it automated, but some customizing for individual users has to be done manually.
The second route we went was Microsoft RDS to address staff who had a home PC that can be used. Unfortunately, my staff had no experience with RDS, so I looked for external support to get architecture and sizing right. It took us less than two weeks to provide a first usable implementation thanks to the fact that our automated application install was working perfectly on RDS.
MITCH: What sort of decisions did you need to make in designing your RDS infrastructure for enabling users to work from home?
MARTIN: The hardest part was to estimate the number of concurrent users. Since home office work has a different schedule than regular office work, we could really only make an educated guess. We estimated that 100 of our 180 users might work on the RDS farm at any one time and sized it accordingly. We also set up a cold standby node to be prepared for peaks.
The other thing was that we had no idea about was the necessary Internet bandwidth needed. The only thing we could do here is monitor things closely and get an estimate from our provider for added bandwidth.
MITCH: So, you’ve got a mix then of two remote work solutions: RDS and VPN. Why not just use RDS only?
MARTIN: We’ve found that our developers prefer working with VPN while typical task workers are fine with RDS. And staff needing external devices like scanners or printers in their home office are maybe better off with VPN as well.
MITCH: How long did it take you to implement these remote work solutions?
MARTIN: As I mentioned, our VPN was already established, so no additional efforts were needed here. Our RDS solution was built from scratch to full production (with some minor glitches) in two weeks.
MITCH: Wow — how did you get RDS up and running in only two weeks?
MARTIN: We were well prepared from the operations perspective, running Windows Data Center Server on VMware. Using templates, it was really easy to get basic operations running. That saved us a lot of time which we could invest in bringing our applications to RDS and doing extensive testing. I also split off the RDS team from my operations team so they had only one project to work on. And we had excellent external support that did training on the job with my RDS team.
MITCH: Did you do everything in-house or did you need to source some third parties for some of these tasks?
MARTIN: I try to source only know-how, not the workforce. Think of an instructor-led implementation — only that it’s productive.
MITCH: Did you hit any problems along the way? Any glitches you had to iron out to get things working?
MARTIN: I underestimated how hard it would be to get additional hardware, especially notebooks. And we found some balky applications we had to convince to run on RDS.
MITCH: Do different users at your company have different kinds of remote work needs? Or does one solution work pretty well for everybody?
MARTIN: Most of the users are fine with RDS, which is why we estimated that the majority of our users might use it. However, people already using VPN are comfortable with it, so we kept them as-is to minimize support efforts.
One additional point: Many households have only one PC, and when two or more need it, we run into problems. Think especially of kids — they are now being educated over the Internet. That is why we stacked up some extra all-in-one PCs for these types of users.
MITCH: How have you gone about educating your users on how to do their work remotely without compromising your company’s security?
MARTIN: Our VPN users have already been educated, and we try to do a regular refresher. All the others got the same instructions because it does not matter how you connect — basic hygiene is the same. This link might provide good guidance if you are starting from scratch.
MITCH: What do you do about monitoring how well your remote work solution is working?
MARTIN: We rely on our existing monitoring solution. During the first days running RDS in production, we had one person from the operations team watching it more closely to get a baseline.
MITCH: Do you perform any special auditing on how remote users connect to your corpnet?
MARTIN: Not yet, it is currently not required.
MITCH: How do your users feel about all this? Are they happy about working from home?
MARTIN: It is interesting to see how opinions on home office change. In IT, working from home was pretty common, and all the others were envying them. Now they see that the home office is not as easy as it seems — you have to be very organized! On the other hand, we had some people who could not imagine working from home but are very happy with the current situation. In the long run, this will definitely change the way we work at my company.
MITCH: Anything else you’d like to add or recommend to other IT pros who need to quickly implement or expand remote work connectivity at their own enterprises
MARTIN: Get expert support. If you never did this kind of stuff before, chances are that you’ll make every single mistake that the expert did some years before.
MITCH: Martin, thanks very much for giving us some of your valuable time!
MARTIN: You’re welcome!
Featured image: Shutterstock
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