Network teams prepare for impact of swine flu on remote access

Remote access contingency planning is on the rise as networking teams prepare for an expected increase in work-at-home telecommuters to counter the spread of the H1N1 swine flu.

As health workers race to track and contain the spread of the H1N1 swine flu across the country and the world, networking teams should prepare for the possible impact the pandemic might have on corporate networks and their remote access loads.

Many corporations are advising their people to work from home if flu-like symptoms surface, just to be on the safe side and to avoid infecting fellow workers. However, the disaster recovery plans and the networks at these companies may not be adequately prepared for a sudden spike in remote workers.

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Even those wide-area networks (WANs) outfitted with basic optimization technologies may be ill-prepared to handle a significant jump in remote users, according to experts. They say that WAN disaster recovery strategies should be in place to compensate for a possible doubling or tripling of people working from home and other locations.

Those companies with no optimization technologies in play -- about 35% of the firms based in the U.S. but with a global footprint, according to Nemertes Research -- may be at a significantly higher risk in terms of WAN preparedness and disaster recovery.

Employees at Cisco have already been told they can request to work from home if they have concerns about the health risks associated with the swine flu, says Cisco marketing manager Michael Leonard. The company has a teleworking policy in place and routinely encourages employees to work remotely and from home via a secure VPN to increase productivity and "extend their day," Leonard notes.

Cisco has deployed its own Wide Area Application Services (WAAS) mobile WAN optimization solution, which is designed to handle a wide range of remote user traffic and manage any sudden demands on the network.

"All of us hope that this crisis goes away quietly," Leonard said. "But in the meantime, it's good to know that our VPN and WAN optimization solutions give us options that can help to minimize the risks."

Riverbed Technology has also cautioned employees about the flu and is advising those with symptoms or concerns to work from home. All employees at the network performance optimization company use its Steelhead Mobile software accelerator product, noted vice president of technical operations Steve Smoot.

Most organizations typically design their WANs to handle their immediate roaming population and not the general workforce. Minor upgrades are a snap; but, in a crisis, the point can easily be reached where the data center is clearly undersized.

"This may require some creativity or additional hardware to handle," Smoot explained. "Imagine taking a 10K user deployment and suddenly switching it to all 100K employees. You may be able to do fancy policy tricks and leverage other [devices], or you may not."

One way to prepare for the worst is to preinstall optimization software on all laptops but -- to save costs -- disable it for those who don't immediately need it. This is easily done with remote policy management software, Smoot pointed out.

"As disaster recovery costs go, this isn't very expensive," he said. "But in tight times like these, I think people depend on being able to buy and deploy more gear on a short timeline and don't do the purchase up front."

D.C. Palter, president and co-founder of Los Angeles-based Apposite Technologies, a maker of WAN emulation and simulation technologies, hasn't seen any measurable up-tick in contingency planning by enterprise IT teams in California -- perhaps because companies are already prepared for "ever-present threats" like earthquakes, he noted.

If there is any contingency planning at all, it may be in the area of early logistics, Palter said. "[Companies are thinking]: 'How do we connect new people from home? How do we continue to run the call centers and support centers? How do we operate our manual processes when there is nobody available?' " he said, "with little thought put into how to actually make things work well."

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