01 Aug 2009
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Planning for a pandemic

By Contributor

Is your organisation ready for when swine flu strikes? What technical solutions will be required to enable a widespread teleworking deployment should the H1N1 virus threaten the health of employees?

Telecommunications Review posed the following scenario to the country’s top ICT companies separately and asked for their comments.

A corporate client with 500 staff in three locations – Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch – comes to you tomorrow and is concerned that 50% of its workforce may be hit with the swine flu. The CEO has said they need to implement a teleworking solution ASAP. How would you assess the organisation’s teleworking capability?

Cisco regional manager Jen Rutherford says the first thing is to assess the culture of the organisation. How do employees go about their work – are they deskbound, does their role involve active collaboration through meetings, and are they the kind of employees able to work well without active supervision? TelstraClear portfolio service manager Antonios Karantze says it’s necessary to assess the specific applications they will require over and above email and the intranet.

“We would also work to understand where staff would be working from in a teleworking environment – a drop-in centre, from their home, public hotspots and so on,” he says. AT&T general manager for New Zealand Roger Payne included an assessment of the security policy and internet border security architecture the organisation has in place and the applicability of either a network level (IPSec) or application level (SSL) security approach.

What hardware would the organisation require to facilitate teleworking, ie: web cameras, laptops, etc?

Gen-i service line manager for infrastructure and business application Jon Harris outlined the basics. “The ICT infrastructure required will vary widely depending on the business requirements, but it is likely to include a notebook computer (or possibly a home PC), phone (fixed and mobile), broadband, authentication service, security and a means to make applications and information available to remote users.”

Web cameras weren’t high on the priority list; however Rutherford illustrated how a simple web camera attached to a PC can be used to keep remote staff engaged. She leads a team of 15 and spends a large part of her working week at home (through personal choice) and finds this a useful tool. Payne suggests an IP softphone would be a possibility that CIOs may wish to consider.

What kind of expense would the organisation face? Could it be scaled up or down as necessary – that is, when the pandemic is over, are they able to relinquish some of this capability

Karantze says the key to cost management is in the planning. “Getting set up is not onerous, and the investment is driven by the outcome required – enabling 500 people across New Zealand to access a corporate LAN involves a lot of planning and rollout. In many cases most of the core technology requirements will be in the business, in which case it becomes a case of enabling a new service.”

Rutherford says the Cisco Virtual Office setup at her home cost around $500 for the hardware and that indicative costs for a web camera service are around $50 per user per month. Rutherford says she doesn’t personally claim broadband as an expense, because she uses it for home-use; however she is entitled to. For the company in the TR scenario, starting from scratch it would pay around $250,000 for a high-end solution deployed in every home and ongoing monthly costs of at least $25,000 to keep every one of its 500 workers connected via web camera. 

Would you expect there to be a marked increase in the organisation’s bandwidth allocation?

Payne says an organisation’s internet access is likely to increase with a sudden increase in remote access. “It would tend to change the mix of upstream and downstream usage, so there is usually some buffer capacity available. This is an area where a cloud computing/hosted solution can be advantageous.”

Harris points out that faster upload broadband speeds can enable a low-cost voice solution, and emphasises the need for good planning. “A well designed teleworking solution will minimise bandwidth requirements, while an urgent deployment may result in access to applications not designed for remote access causing a significant traffic load.”

Rutherford says remote solutions are dependent on where staff members work. She lives in a suburb located about 30 minutes from the company’s Auckland CBD headquarters, but her boss lives just over the Auckland Harbour Bridge and can’t install the Cisco Virtual Office because his broadband isn’t fast enough.

Ministry of Economic Development digital manager Brad Ward says the government’s focus is on improving broadband infrastructure with the $1.5 billion investment in a fibre to the home rollout over 10 years.

For those who can’t wait, check your home’s distance from a telephone exchange or roadside cabinet. If you’re within 700 metres then you might be eligible for VDSL2, which Telecom Wholesale intends to roll out across the country from September. It enables download speeds of up to 50Mbps and upload speeds of up to 20Mbps – more than enough for today’s applications.

Is ‘cloud computing’ a cheaper option to enable speedier solutions?

While teleworking solutions offered by vendors have a tendency to be at the high end (and high cost), cloud computing generally provides a cheaper option, with remote working being an added bonus to a complete managed ICT solution. Large organisations have been reticent about moving to the cloud, but the recent deal between Fronde and NZ Post, in which the State-Owned Enterprise will have all its IT delivered via Google apps, is likely to have change things. The three-year, $1 million deal means NZ Post’s 2100 staff will use Google apps for email, calendar, collaboration and Instant Messaging.

In addition the deal covers all virus and spam filtering, mail will be archived for 10 years and there is the facility for video to be added at a later date.

Postal Services chief executive officer Peter Fenton cites as one of the main advantages to moving to web-based tools that people can work securely from anywhere at any time using any web-based device. “Google Apps simplifies document sharing within a secure environment, either internally or to people working remotely. This will increase our ability to work collaboratively,” he says.

According to Harris, it’s early days for cloud computing, but that “any services sourced from ‘the cloud’ will inherently be more accessible for teleworking users and will result in less cost to extend their use to remote workers”.

Payne is also a cloud convert: “We believe that managed solutions can offer the expertise and scalability that organisations are after, especially where key staff absence can greatly impact DIY solutions that are often put together to support a few remote workers, but not a sudden increase in scale. This is the area where costs savings, especially upfront costs, can be made.”Rutherford is more hesitant about cloud computing – for legal, rather than technical reasons. She says outsourcing data storage offshore could mean that companies are subject to the legislation of the country in which it is held. But this is an issue of some debate.

According to Fronde general manager for technology solutions Rob Old, Google keeps its clients’ data in a number of separate data centres around the world, and the location of the data is not publicly disclosed.

What ICT security issues should the organisation consider?

Karantze says it’s important to think about how people will use the solutions when devising remote security. “Giving a user a mobile to use isn’t much help if they have poor coverage or low speeds where they will be using the technology. Equally the application of the security needs to be easy to employ – complex passwords, multiple authentication layers and so on are important, but if the end-user is confused – it won’t happen.”

Maintaining the integrity of the IT infrastructure is also critical, and managers need to ensure that if employees are using their own PCs, “no nasty software is going to creep back into critical business systems”.

Harris says teleworking is just one consideration in what should be a holistic approach to security architecture and governance; however there are two specific factors to consider. These are strong authentication of remote user (eg: token based) and zone security to protect against client devices that the organisation does not manage – that is, if personal home PCs are used.

Post-swine flu

Having made the investment, emptied the office and protected the workforce from the pandemic, what happens when the swine flu subsides and everyone can return to a central workplace? Will they want to?

Teleworking is obviously not the solution for everyone, but it is fast becoming a preferred option for today’s professionals. While the scenario in this article is event-driven, much of the demand for teleworking is from individual employees seeking a better work/life balance. Rutherford says she has personally turned down roles that didn’t provide for teleworking and Karantze answered TR’s queries from his home office.

In another example, Super Shuttle Limited, which runs services to 10 airports, has 40 employees and takes 1.3 million phone bookings a year, enables its contact centre agents to work from home using a Cisco solution.IT manager Aaron Anderson says agents are empowered to work remotely via one of eight ‘mobile office bags’ the company owns.

Utilising a laptop and secure VPN, agents can log in from home and work as if they were in a Super Shuttle office.“The mothers in Te Awamutu and Henderson can go from being dialed into the call centre as employees to tending to their children in the backyard with a few simple mouse clicks. It blurs distance in a new way that affords a better quality of life through better technologies.”

Switching seamlessly between dealing with the queries of customers to answering the cries of children – now there’s a 21st century day at the office.

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