WFA can be better with help from “the edge”
by Alan Earls Alan Earls on

The pandemic has put fantastic stress on many of the pillars of IT, including VPNs. Long relied upon to provide secure connectivity to remote corporate workers, they were adequate for the needs of 2019, but not necessarily for the mass of people relying on them through the pandemic.

A particular point of weakness was the requirement that cloud services had to be routed through dedicated servers in the data center, or even company headquarters, before making the arduous “journey” to and from the end user in the field.

This predicament has helped to focus more attention on the potential of edge computing to play a role in supporting the work-from-anywhere (WFA) workforce.

The evolution of edge has generally been predicated on having a traditional IT structure with a data center “in the middle.” But the rush to support WFA (not to mention long-term trends toward cloud, SaaS, and decentralization) is now forcing a review of edge assumptions and performance expectations and the way the edge role is evolving. This includes issues that need to be addressed to support WFA, including end-to-end monitoring, in order to gain full value from investments made in this area.

First, what do we mean by edge?

There are a maddening range of definitions that can be vendor- or industry-specific, with equally large variations in what they look like from a technical perspective. For our purposes, let’s just say that edge is a node outside of a traditional data center and closer to users or data sources (in the case of factory edge) and that it provides computing, storage, and/or connectivity options for users (human and machine). (If you want to further explore all the other edge definitions a good place to start is the State of the Edge organization.)

Having said that, many edge installations, perhaps the majority, are aimed at supporting small offices or branch offices, individual retail outlets or a chain, etc. Naturally as the physical location of workers has expanded dramatically and as companies seem likely to retain much of that dispersal over time, it is likely that the various kinds of edge will be far more engaged in supporting the workforce than has been the case to date.

One of the top challenges has been supporting an increase in Zoom calls (and similar services such as Microsoft Teams) that eat up bandwidth and abhor latency. Zoom, in particular, saw an almost unimaginable increase in daily users from 10 million a day at the end of 2019 to more than 300 million each day during the pandemic.

Zoom’s ability to sustain this was truly remarkable, but that doesn’t mean every user got good signal quality. Multiple hops, last mile frailties, and the last 100 feet or so over WiFi were not always up to the task – especially when a whole household was engaged in bandwidth-intensive activities. Likewise, according to the Pew Charitable Trust, data use on wireline networks was 47 percent greater in March of 2020 compared to a year earlier.

Obviously, the cloud delivers a large portion of the functionality that WFA folks will use (Salesforce, Office 365, etc.). But unlike individuals working at a typical SMB or enterprise scale business, which often has multiple sources of connectivity, WFA users probably rely on one source for connectivity.

Still, this is not going to deliver the kind of bullet-proof, high-capacity experience most people have grown accustomed to in an office. In the midst of the pandemic, everyone was willing to make allowances for sub-par connectivity but in the post-pandemic world, better end-user experience will be critical to maintaining productivity and to please an increasingly restless workforce.

Strengthening the edge is one way in which organizations might be able to better support WFA. For example, in a geographically dispersed organization, edge nodes could become regional hubs for WFA people, potentially adding routing options and improving reliability to the end user. In some cases, this may be as simple as repurposing existing hardware. However, it also implies a need to make the edge smarter and better coordinated. This has yielded the idea of the ‘edge mesh’ computing network, where there is enhanced coordination and cooperation among edge components.

To achieve the full potential of this vision will require clear information about what is going on in each node and throughout the connective paths.

The end result should be a stronger and more resilient support for WFA that can benefit employers and employees alike. WFA has been good for many people – now is the chance to make it great.

Data Sheet

How to Monitor Work-From-Home Users and VPN Connectivity
Read our data sheet to understand how AppNeta’s Workstation Monitoring Points can be deployed across your remote user base to ensure visibility into the performance of any app, at any location, any time.

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Filed Under: Performance Monitoring, Industry Insights

Tags: office network , hybrid office , hybrid work , remote work , work from anywhere , work from home , network management , network monitoring , WAN performance , network performance , enterprise IT , enterprise edge , WAN edge , network edge , edge computing , edge