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3 things every IT org should be doing to get ahead of the pandemic

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David Linthicum, Chief Cloud Strategy Officer, Deloitte Consulting

It’s a pandemic. Almost every business is feeling or will soon feel its effects, and some market sectors will struggle much more than others. Taking all enterprises as a whole, and considering the circumstances, many organizations are weathering the crisis reasonably well. Others may not make it in the long run.

There are two things that enterprises with healthier short- and long-term outlooks tend to have done prior to the crisis to remain stable now. The first is to have contingency plans that could be adapted to the unique challenges encountered during a pandemic. The second: Relocate a lot of assets to more pandemic-resilient public cloud resources.

No one alive has managed a business through a worldwide pandemic. It serves no one well to focus blame on what led to a business in crisis. The pandemic isn't over, so now it's time to identify the next steps to assess and understand the damage already done, learn from the mistakes, and put together short- and long-term plans to fix the issues. Hopefully all of that will happen before the business suffers to the point of failure. 

The path forward will be more pragmatic for most enterprises. For instance, the planned movement to AI-enabled data analytics to enhance an enterprise's business intelligence capabilities prior to the crisis may be replaced by the mass movement of thousands of workloads and data to a public cloud. There will be a refocusing of priorities around the tactical versus the strategic. 

The pace of change will also accelerate to make up for ground lost during the pandemic, and this means an increased likelihood of mistakes. Many organizations will move faster than usual, and some will be in a panic state. 

You can count on major technology selection errors, and other bad judgment calls about how applications will be deployed on the public cloud. Without cooler heads prevailing and close attention paid to all of the details, many enterprises will migrate twice: once, in haste, and then once again to fix the mistakes made the first time. 

Don't let that happen to you. Here are three things you should focus on right now to get out in front of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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1. Accelerate your cloud migration plans

Keeping an inventory of physical systems in a data center brings risk. With various shelter-in-place orders in effect worldwide, there are not enough qualified people to repair or replace those devices on hand. Some enterprises are even dead in the water. 

The answer going forward is to create a plan to relocate all the physical systems that you can to a public cloud provider or providers. Those already in the cloud are faring better these days than those that are not.

The CIO of a medium-sized, publicly traded retail company (to remain nameless) recently experienced a direct issue with having too many systems still contained in an enterprise data center. One of the core storage systems that supports sales transactions is failing, and the timing could not be worse. There was a plan for the demise of this storage system, and there's even a shrink-wrapped replacement sitting at the loading dock in the data center. 

Unfortunately, the pandemic got in the way. Several employees who are authorized and trained to move the data and replace the storage system are now in quarantine. The company contacted the storage system dealer, but it is located in a locked-down state and could not dispatch anyone for what is not considered an essential activity. 

The company must watch the storage system move to a failure, and then deal with the lost revenue. 

Most of those who promote cloud, including the cloud providers themselves, would point out that this would not be an issue if the storage were contained in a public cloud. That's not very helpful information at the moment for businesses that are just beginning to understand the vulnerabilities of not having these assets in a virtual platform that's mostly resilient to human frailties, including the unforeseen consequences of a pandemic.

Let the planning begin

What is helpful is to begin the process right now to accelerate the migration to the public cloud. A good plan will include the following steps:

  • Find the funding for the migration. Typically, corporate boards will be motivated to move resources to cloud migration, considering the recent impact on the business. Moreover, shareholders will also be asking that the vulnerabilities be removed.
  • Quickly define business requirements for the first group of systems that are likely to move. While this is a more "running and gunning" than conservative IT would prefer, now is the time to be a bit more aggressive in moving to the cloud—even at the expense of risk.
  • Develop a migration factory. There are processes, tools, and teams that are very good at moving applications from their existing on-premises homes to the public cloud. Incorporate these assets into your plan, and you'll be able to do the migration at scale, which allows you to scale the migration up and down as needed. 

2. Gear up to support an expanded virtual workforce

Look at bandwidth to homes. Scale your VPN. Create policies, and create a culture that promotes productivity when virtual. The pandemic puts a spotlight on some hard facts: We don't really need all those cars on the road, office space is not cheap, and many companies are finding it's better to encourage hoteling.

For many organizations, working from home is already a cultural norm. However, there are other enterprises, including most of the Global 2000, where working at home is not a part of the corporate culture. In some instances, it may be impossible. 

How you approach this challenge will set the standard for how you deal with the next stay-at-home crisis, which may not be another pandemic, but a more common natural disaster such as a weather event or earthquake (or simply part 2 of the current pandemic).

Assuming yours is one of the companies that has yet to embrace a virtual workforce, there are a clear set of priorities you need to implement. 

Set up a work-from-home task force 

The easy part is to identify the jobs that can be done virtually, especially now that so many jobs must be done at home. Identify the tools employees have found useful, such as Zoom and other face-to-face tools. Have the task force research other work-from-home apps and tools that are emerging right now as a result of the crisis.

Identify the number of laptops that are available to go out, the quality of Internet access at employees' homes, the number of VPN servers set up to serve remote workers, and specialized security concerns that need to be addressed. 

The company needs to put forth an effort to address these issues before staff goes home. If there's a portion of the workforce that does not or cannot become a virtual part of daily life in the new normal, this means planning for and funding a resource that's allocated on an emergency basis.

Address the needs of a virtual workforce with the cloud in mind

Those working from home will benefit from direct cloud access. However, this needs to be defined in the core requirements. No matter if it's identifying regional locations for data and storage that will remove much of the network latency, or dealing with enhanced security processes and tooling, the movement to a more remote workforce directly affects how you define and design your public cloud solutions.

Develop remote training

While many enterprises already leverage remote training companies as well as state and local universities that provide online education, you'll need to address the specific training needs of your remote workforce and clearly define the plan to all involved.

Understand compliance issues  

In some cases, moving some data to remote systems at an employee's home is illegal. This also includes data copied across some borders. It's vital to understand those regulations and how they affect the use of a remote workforce. 

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3. Get your data right

Is your data scattered all over the place? Many remote workers notice data access latency as they leverage enterprise data from a different physical location. Leveraging the same data in centralized public cloud platforms is a step in the right direction. 

For most enterprises, not only is data scattered about in complex heterogeneous structures and models, but it's also typically contained within traditional data centers. You now have an opportunity to fix many of the issues inherent to data centers by:

  • Placing the data closest to the people or processes that will both consume and generate the data to minimize latency. 
  • Finding the single sources of truth within the data, such as streamlining your abstract customer data, inventory data, sales data, and other data that may be redundant from system to system. What does this have to do with enabling a remote workforce? The simplification of data will make a remote workforce more efficient.
  • Centrally managing metadata using metadata management (MDM), or other similar mechanisms. The ability to find the right data will allow developers to build applications for remote workers. Because the developers themselves are scattered geographically, they need tools to find the exact data sources they need to leverage, and allow that information to be shared throughout the distributed development team.   

Moving forward

If you're among the lucky few, you've long planned for a remote workforce. Perhaps you run one now. These are typically the more progressive "cloud-first" cultures that made bolder moves than their larger counterparts, and can now leverage a remote workforce as a key strategic advantage. Even these organizations will have to look around and see what's working as planned and note any areas that need improvement. 

What’s key here is that you aggressively address the issue. While IT does not do well with an enhanced sense of urgency, most companies now have very little choice. It's time to make the hard calls. Find emergency money. Put the right people in charge of the ad hoc organizations. Create realistic expectations around execution. 

Finally, and most important, define the win. 

The enterprises with innovative leaders will take the lessons learned in this crisis and make lemonade out of the lemons. Their win will be the lemonade stand.

Most organizations will define a win as having their employees back in the building. If that's your endgame, it's not too late to learn from some of the painful lessons of the recent past. 

It's no longer difficult to imagine how your business will continue to operate if none of your employees can physically report to work at any of the enterprise's physical locations. Imagine the unforeseen benefits of a partial or even a full virtual workforce while you're busy listing the cons.

Clearly, it's time to think hard about how to remove vulnerability and risk for the business. Cloud computing and related technologies are tools that can help you do so.  

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