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Catching Up with Our CTO: How to Move Forward in the Age of Distributed Disasters

The pandemic has created an altered reality for all of us. After spending so much of the past decade on the road or working closely with my engineering colleagues in the Nasuni offices, I’m now sequestered at home with my wife and kids. Adapting is what put us humans at the top of the food chain and now we are having to adapt overnight to the challenges of working remotely.

Those of us in IT have spent much of our career planning for local and regional disasters. First and foremost, we looked at the primary data center as a critical point of failure. To prepare for the worst, we believed that maintaining a second, failover data center would be sufficient. Or if you were a large enough organization, a third facility could be maintained. The world of enterprise data protection was built around this idea that you could fail over from one data center to the other or, worst case, a third. Even when cloud entered the picture, people initially looked at it as that secondary or tertiary data center.

For good measure, we also thought about what happens if individual offices go offline. We lit up redundant pipes and maybe devised schemes for re-routing traffic to a nearby office. In the event of a complete physical site failure, such as we saw with Hurricane Sandy in 2012, we scrambled to find ways for people in that office to still be able to get their work done.  

We have never seen anything like what we are seeing with COVID-19. The data center, especially for organizations already in the cloud, is largely intact. Instead disaster struck every office simultaneously. It is not only one or two locations but every single physical site where people go to get their job done that has been taken offline. That is unprecedented and something none of us planned for.

This pandemic is novel in many ways, but from an IT perspective, what makes it a first is that it is a distributed disaster. The data center did not fail. What I think we’re learning now – and there is a lot more we are going to learn – is that it’s not just the data center we need to protect. Disaster can hit anywhere and everywhere at once. This doesn’t merely apply to the COVID-19 pandemic, either. In my next post I’ll be discussing how this relates to the evolution of ransomware. Everything is more connected than ever, the good and the bad.

Still, what does all this mean for the enterprise? The end user? The future of work?

This Place We Call the Office

First, we need to re-think disaster recovery and business continuity. That much is certain. (Nasuni does offer a compelling alternative, but I’ll leave the pitch for another post.) Second, we need to think differently about the office itself. The struggles many of us are experiencing while working from home reveal how bound we are to this place we call the office.

So much of our technological life depends on being in that physical space. For many companies, enterprise technology is optimized around the assumption that we will be close to the physical hardware that stores our files – be it the data center or the local NAS hardware – and that we will have fast connectivity and so much more. What happens when thousands or even hundreds of thousands of users are suddenly barred from those offices, and need to work remotely? Chaos, for many companies, and no large enterprise is going to be caught flatfooted and allow this to happen again. So, if enterprise IT wants to prepare for another distributed disaster sometime in the future, what are the modifications that need to be put into place?

1. Virtualize Your Infrastructure
Any essential function that had already transitioned to a SaaS model was effectively uninterrupted by the pandemic. Salesforce, for example. It is already designed to run with people being anywhere. You don’t need to access a particular location or data center to reach your critical sales account information. Your employees are accessing what they need through a web browser, so it doesn’t matter if they’re in the office or at home in the basement with a golden retriever at their feet.

But what do you do with the desktop, the files and applications? Enterprises are now beginning to see why these may need to be virtualized as well. Again, businesses that shifted to VDI desktops in the cloud have managed this transition much better. You need to be able to give users access to their software and applications everywhere in the world. As my colleague Tom Rose discussed in a recent post, the next step is ensuring that your files are close to those virtual apps, so you maintain the kind of fast performance your users have become accustomed to.

2. Find Ways to Foster Collaboration
Slack and Zoom are crushing it right now because they offer a way for co-workers to chat and interact seamlessly. Yet they can’t do everything. Personally, I miss those chance moments of inspiration that occur when I walk into someone’s office, or one of my colleagues ends up in mine, and we move to the whiteboard to solve some previously intractable problem.

Collaboration tools are fantastic, and I’m not sure where we would be right now without Slack, Zoom, and the like. Nasuni allows employees to work on the same shared files, no matter how large or complex, regardless of where you are in the world. But the kind of collaboration our platform fosters isn’t really what I’m getting at here. What I’d like to know is how we can foster brainstorming in a virtual environment. How can we help employees who would once run into each other several times a day stumble upon those creative solutions that so often find their way onto our whiteboards?

Productive collaboration is fueled by solid relationships. Spend the time and the extra effort being extra nice and social with your colleagues. They are going through this mess too. At Nasuni, we have started having virtual lunches and beer hours just to catch up. I have to imagine we are not alone in this.

3. Support the Unique Challenges of the Home Office
Enterprise decision makers need to think about what we can do to support people as they shift to the home, an environment that wasn’t designed to support work. I’m proud of the work my colleagues at Nasuni have done in helping our own workforce transition. We are sharing advice on best practices – a good friend of mine, a work-from-home writer, offered these suggestions – and Slacking each other tips on how to build makeshift standup desks.

But there is more to do on this front. We need to find ways to support the technological needs of remote workers and ensure that we all can be as productive as possible.

4. Bring the Advantages of the Home into the Office
I received an interesting note from one of my colleagues last week, as part of his weekly roundup. We’ve been working together for more than a decade, and I consider him to be one of the more focused people I’ve ever met. Yet he wrote that the previous week was his most productive since we started Nasuni. He did the same this week. He is just so happy to be getting so much done.

The business world tends to cater to the extrovert. In our internal company emails, we’re hearing from executive team members lamenting the loss of social interaction, face-to-face conversations, and chance brainstorming sessions of the type I mentioned above. These are essential for some, but we should also recognize that they can be a distraction for others. For every serendipitous whiteboarding session, there is probably an unproductive, tangential conversation that swallows valuable cycles. People barging into your office isn’t always a good thing. How can we change this going forward? How can we bring the focused productivity of the home office into the workplace?

The Anywhere, Everywhere Office

The economy will rebound and recover. We will return to the office. But we should recognize that the office isn’t a paradise optimized for work, and neither is the home. We need to accept the fact that the nature of disasters has fundamentally changed and cultivate the development of a new “office” that is not tied to a physical location. This disaster-proof office should be anywhere, and everywhere, and somehow feature the best of both the cubicle maze and the basement bunker.

There is more to say about this new reality of distributed disasters, and how Nasuni is designed to support this virtual office of the future, and I plan to return to these themes in my next few posts. For now, though, my wife needs a break from my clicking keyboard, and I need to get on with making lunch.

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