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Business continuity for the remote worker

Michael Burlison
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Our user research indicates a substantial increase in the use of wireless infrastructure (e.g., 802.11b), mobile devices (e.g., PDAs and, to a lesser extent, laptops), and broadband access. Currently, we estimate that approximately 90% of organizations have users with some form of mobile or remote work requirement ranging from occasionally connected mobile users to road warriors. We expect this to rise to more than 95% by 2006. The drive to provide home PCs via employee purchase schemes (particularly in Europe) will encourage users to entertain some form of remote work. To cater to this consumption, there is a growing need for ITOs to provide their mobile users and remote workers with tailored mobile support services and levels of IT infrastructure akin to those provided for office-based access. However, IT management should be careful to communicate that mobile infrastructure will not be as good as LAN/wired because of the unique problems mobile workers face (e.g., connectivity, application access, break/fix). With current desktop-centric end-user support regimes, it is quite common to find mobile end users without service for days or weeks, creating user aggravation and damaging IT's reputation. Therefore, we recommend that IT management take a proactive view of how to support mobile workers to improve their quality of experience, supervise costs to better manage their expectations, and improve their perception of IT.

Backup

Backing up data is critical. Because mobile backup is not centralized as in the office case, mobile worker data is not backed up routinely. Being connected to the file-and-print server in the office via a high-speed Internet line is not good enough. The data volume being backed up will be too great. In addition, there are network quality/latency issues. Numerous archival and backup services such as Veritas and Connected offer good third-party solutions. Locally, there are many options available for backing up such as external devices like hard drives, CD-RW, and DVD-R/RW/DVD+RW, as well as internal optical drive devices. DVD drives provide ease of use, particularly if they are internal to the remote user's laptop. Of the optical drives, DVD+RW provides the best solution, though DVD writer drives are still too expensive. We expect DVD writer drives and discs to continue developing during the next 12-24 months to provide a reliable solution at a less expensive cost. External hard drives are the cheapest option but are not as portable. Zip drives should be phased out progressively because they are inadequate to handle modern mobile-user data volumes. As long as the laptop supports USB 2.0, portable USB 2.0 drives provide a great solution. They typically cost 50% of the DVD+RW optical drive price, and most are backward compatible to USB 1.1 if required. User Action: ITOs must standardize the type of device being used. We recommend USB 2.0 drives. In addition, IT must establish a policy about which data should or should not be backed up to exercise control.

Software Updates

IT cannot visit remote staff on an ad hoc basis to provide updates. This can render the remote worker susceptible to security holes and outdated software. IT management must continually control the software on all corporate hardware, including remote workers. This includes not only the operating system and patches, but also the applications that the organization uses. The basic steps involved in the process are inventorying the operating systems and applications that exist in the enterprise (asset tracking), collecting the patches applicable to that software, and installing them on only the systems requiring the patches. We recommend that IT management control and apply such updates automatically, using scripts or dedicated patch management tools or mailed CDs with instructions to individuals who seldom connect to their corporate networks. The remote worker should not be able to dictate which software updates are run and installed. User Action: IT management must define which form such updates are to take and formulate a minimum quarterly distribution program to applicable systems. Maintaining asset tracking of both hardware and software is imperative to this end.

Support

For remote workers to be autonomous, they will need a total and largely independent personal IT infrastructure. Not only will the Internet access be defined and sourced but also all other IT peripherals that contribute to the effective remote worker. Not every mobile phone carrier will have coverage for where the user is geographically located. Such areas need to be addressed by researching the coverage area of the selected telco to ensure that consistent coverage is available. The broadband/high-speed Internet service provider (ISP) must offer comprehensive support. The most inexpensive way is not always the best way. There will need to be an alternative means of connectivity if there is an outage for whatever reason. A telephone and line will be needed for conferences, with the provider being able to offer discounted long-distance calls if at all possible. User Action: Organizations must determine the best ISP and telco providers based on individual remote-user requirements, including excellent support service and reputation.

Help Desk

The IT help desk provides a lifeline to the remote worker. The help desk is the silver bullet and should be no more than a ping away. With remote control software installed on the laptop such as Symantec PC Anywhere, Microsoft's Remote Assistance in Windows XP, or Funk Software's Proxy, the help desk can provide support and solutions resulting in reduced user downtime. To reduce downtime further, the help desk should keep a limited number of spares (e.g., modem and network cards, RAM, batteries, drives, preconfigured spare laptops) to be sent out in severe conditions. Any warranty repair or replacement procedure must provide guaranteed hours, with a three-year on-site next-business-day service included in the repair agreement. Periodic health checks to the help desk should be organized every six months to provide proactive maintenance, upgrades, and repair tasks. The hardware of remote workers needs to be kept current and preferably no more than two to three years old, with the exception of telephony and printers. User Action: IT management must implement policies concerning how end users will be continually supported (e.g., 24x365 help desks). If there are serious hardware issues, then a spare loaner laptop must be issued the same day.

Bottom Line: IT management must re-evaluate how it will support remote workers. Particular focal points must include help desk, support, software updates, and backup strategies.

Business Impact: Mobility and remote work will increasingly enhance the user experience and provide new opportunities for business innovation and productivity, along with increased costs to support. Business continuity planning around mobility requires that IT management address new risks and work hard to manage user expectations.


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