By shutting down offices and other facilities almost overnight, the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted something that even the most sophisticated business operations already know: physical infrastructure is an unnecessary burden.
When shelter-in-place orders went into effect, companies with business continuity plans (BCPs) that relied on employees’ physical presence in an office or maintenance of a data center promptly began searching for new solutions. Previous assumptions — like the idea that employees would be less productive working remotely, or that migration to the cloud would reduce security — were tested and proven wrong as many companies underwent years’ worth of digital transformation in a matter of days.
However, the question for many companies is whether the change will stick. As countries and states begin to reopen, there’s a temptation to simply return to “normal” by scaling back cloud deployments and sending employees back to offices. That would be a mistake both in terms of building a competitive advantage for your business and ensuring business continuity in the future.
COVID-19 changed everything. Now it’s time for companies to free themselves of physical infrastructure permanently.
Free yourself from your data center
Before COVID-19, the vast majority of BCPs focused on local concerns, not global ones. Businesses prepared for natural disasters like earthquakes, floods and fires, as well as cyberattacks that would likely only impact one data center at a time. In this context, most companies felt that having their data centers failover to nearby data centers was sufficient. Multi-region cloud deployments (i.e., involving data centers on other continents) were only necessary when you wanted to distribute workloads close to customers to reduce latency.
This assumption kept many companies reliant on on-premises data centers that were expensive to maintain — and as the COVID-19 pandemic revealed, quite risky. A data center, like any other facility, requires human workers to maintain it. But with entire countries shutting down at once, it simply wasn’t possible to safely staff on-premises data centers or the nearby data centers they failed over to.
In recent months, many companies have developed temporary solutions to these issues. As we adjust to the “new normal,” however, it’s time for a new way of thinking. To ensure business continuity in an era of global disasters, companies need to free themselves from their data centers. They need to migrate to the cloud and adopt a fully remote operating infrastructure that, when necessary, can shift to an entirely new region in minutes.
To minimize data loss and recovery time to its lowest possible level during a failover, it’s generally necessary to have fully provisioned duplicates of all of your machines running in the new region. The expense alone puts this option out of reach for even the largest and most deep-pocketed companies, who still may only choose this option for their most vital core systems.
However, lower-cost options prove this shift doesn’t have to be expensive. Properly planned DR strategies, coupled with Infrastructure-as-Code and automation can enable quick failover without a fully redundant set of running instances using architectures such as “pilot light”. This keeps costs low, but also ensures that when you need to failover, the machines can be spun up and fully provisioned in minutes with loss of only a few seconds of data. When these architectures put multi-region deployment within reach for companies of all sizes and budgets, there’s simply no excuse to remain tethered to your data center.
Free yourself from your office
In a disaster — whether it’s a pandemic or a severe weather event — physical offices are also liabilities. When working in an office is the default, suddenly transitioning employees to work from home disrupts business operations, especially if vital customer data or applications are tethered to the physical workspace. Ensure business continuity during the next disaster by taking your workforce at least partially remote.
Businesses that embrace remote work are in good company. Based on their positive experiences with remote work during the pandemic, tech firms like Twitter, Facebook and Google have made plans for at least some of their employees to work from home full-time. Initial concerns about reduced productivity turned out to be unfounded: Research shows that employees are actually more productive when not working in an office.
Having a fully remote workforce doesn’t mean eliminating physical space entirely. Employees who live in the same region may still want a place where they can meet in person to collaborate on projects or even just socialize. However, that space could be smaller since every employee doesn’t need a desk to work at each day, and inhabiting an entire office space likely isn’t as vital to your business operations. Going even partially remote means adopting security and privacy models that don’t require the four walls of a building to secure sensitive or proprietary data.
In the short term, companies reliant on on-premises tools and resources have used solutions like VPNs, application streaming, and virtual desktops to enable remote access during the pandemic. However, in the long term, these options have major downsides. For example, from a cybersecurity perspective, VPNs present another attack surface that’s complex to defend. Why bother if there’s a SaaS product that’s just as good? Even if you aren’t ready to take your workforce fully remote, setting up remote-friendly infrastructure lets you adapt quickly in a crisis with very little downtime.
A more distributed future
It no longer makes sense to centralize your operations in one physical location, whether that location is a data center or an office building. In the workplace of the future, both technology infrastructure and employees will be widely dispersed across geographies, making them more agile, more productive, and less vulnerable to both local and global disaster events.
If your company hasn’t started to move toward this distributed future, now is the time. Don’t wait for the next disaster to catch you unprepared.