The COVID-19 pandemic set a new high bar for organizations and their need for increased business resiliency. When the pandemic hit, thousands of organizations around the world found themselves forced to rethink how to keep things running while keeping their employees safe and serving customers and the community.
Cisco was one of them. When work-from-home policies took effect in March, we sent home virtually our entire workforce of 100,000-plus employees, contractors, and partners almost overnight. Massive IT challenges followed. Cisco IT saw a huge surge in activity on business platforms like Cisco Webex Meetings and Webex Teams. Within a week, employee activity on these platforms leapt from 39 billion events per day — logins, calls, videos initiated, messages sent, and so on — to over 270 billion events per day. That’s a roughly seven-fold increase as the work-from-home policy expanded around the globe.
To manage this unprecedented transition, we took an architectural approach. One that spanned multiple technologies — networking, security, cloud, applications, and collaboration — to transform how we connected our people, secured our organization, and automated our processes.
Here’s an overview of how this approach worked.
Connect Our People
The foundational layer in this approach is providing base-level connectivity with virtual private network (VPN). This allowed our employees to work from anywhere on company laptops or personal mobile devices and access internal company resources.
When you have tens of thousands of employees suddenly working remotely, you have to take a clear-eyed look at whether you can scale to support them and all the additional traffic they will generate. To that end, we focused heavily on expanding our VPN capacity and resiliency. On load balancing to make more efficient use of system resources and improve performance and availability. And on split tunneling to handle the increased VPN traffic caused by the work-from-home order.
But there’s more to business resiliency and connecting people than VPN access. Employees have to feel engaged and able to collaborate and work productively using tools like email, IM, voice, and video. We found that access to key collaboration tools like Webex Teams, email, and voice are even more important during times of emergency like this.
And with a mind-boggling number of meetings migrating online, the need for a high-quality meeting experience can’t be overstated. In our case, Webex Meetings met that need. In the early days of the pandemic, we saw our Webex daily meeting volume more than double month after month, with meeting volume increasing 24-fold from where it would be normally during peak times. So a platform with the scalability and adaptability to accommodate these unprecedented requirements was essential.
Secure Our Organization
We believe that security must be built in, rather than bolted on. We take that to heart. And our architectural approach to the security elements of business resiliency proves it.
Going beyond just connectivity, our VPN technology provided the visibility and controls our security teams needed to identify who and which devices were accessing the infrastructure. We used identity management to enforce compliance and beef up infrastructure security. And we delivered security from the cloud through Cisco Umbrella — a plug-in to Cisco AnyConnect that combined multiple security functions into one solution and extended protection to devices, remote users, and distributed locations anywhere.
When people are working from home, the security risk increases. So we worked closely with our security team to make sure we opened the right ports and followed the right protocols to deliver Webex securely and effectively to our end users. We also carefully applied key technologies such as Cisco Duo Beyond, Cisco AMP for Endpoints, and Cisco AnyConnect® Secure Mobility Client to protect remote workers anywhere, anytime, on any device.
Just as important as collaboration tools are business-critical applications like Salesforce, Enterprise GitHub, Customer Relationship Management (CRM), and Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP). Not only did they need to perform as flawlessly when employees worked from home as they did in the office, but they also needed to perform securely in the expanded infrastructure. With that in mind, we built critical application lists for each Cisco function, including engineering, sales, and our Customer Experience (CX) organization.
Automate Our Processes
Relying on manual approaches to keep processes humming on such a vast and diverse scale is not an option. Instead, our approach relied on automating processes to link visibility to insights, and insights to action.
Take VPN, for example. After you implement a work-from-home policy, it’s critical to keep monitoring the connectivity status with continuous planning and optimizing. We used these metrics to test the split-tunneling traffic for even more applications to lower the VPN bandwidth demand. Automation here was key.
Similarly, keeping the Webex experience at its best required close monitoring and extreme agility in providing new infrastructure to accommodate the increased demand on the platforms. That meant keeping network, data center, ISP, and other connections under constant surveillance, and rerouting to sites that were under less utilization as needed. Here, too, automation was key.
Cisco’s AppDynamics is a powerful tool for monitoring systems, allowing complete visibility into application performance, as well as the ability to track and monitor business transactions in real time, diagnose and fix problems fast, and more. Our Webex Control Hub includes an analytics section that let us track how our users used Webex services and monitor their experiences. And ThousandEyes, a recent acquisition, gave us visibility into the Internet — a huge asset at a time when remote working is the new norm. The platform allowed us to visualize any network as if it was our own, and quickly surface actionable insights to improve quality of experience, even on infrastructure, networks, and services we do not own or control.
Transform the Experience
The benefits of this architectural approach included the ability to handle complex use cases with flying colors. Have a major conference on the horizon? Or a workshop training that focuses on group work? Need our contact center employees to offer the same level of support, or better, to customers while working from home?
We used this approach for all of the above, including taking our flagship Cisco Live! conference for customers and partners all digital in 2020 for the first time in its 30-year history.
Here’s a closing thought: To manage this unprecedented transition, we needed to look beyond the “normal” or even the “new normal” and embrace the ever-changing reality of our future. This year it was a pandemic. Who knows what it will be a year from now, two years from now, or five years, a decade from now. We wanted to do more than just recover and adjust in the face of change — we wanted to thrive. Our business resiliency plan for reimagining and redesigning the remote experience empowered our teams to work from anywhere, innovated built-in security into every solution, and automated platforms for added agility.
What’s your plan?
For more information, download Cisco’s eBook, Business Continuity Pandemic Preparedness Planning.