Thursday, 9th July 2020

Maintaining network continuity in crisis time

With the coronavirus outbreak continuing to gather pace, many businesses around the world are having to provide remote access for all their employees, sometimes for the first time. This is being done under pressure to tight time constraints. It’s difficult for anyone to do their best work with deadlines looming, and worries and concerns about the current situation playing on their mind. IT staff are no different. By Alan Stewart–Brown, VP of EMEA at Opengear.

Mistakes and misconfigurations are inevitable and that will potentially give hackers opportunities to exploit. At the same time, with network under growing strain from increased traffic and surges in demand, the potential for outages to occur is also increasing. In this and other crisis scenarios from cyber-attacks to winter storms and natural disasters, there is therefore a higher premium than ever on secure remote access and network resilience - and business continuity is becoming even more vital.

At the same time, if outages do happen in such crises, businesses may find getting the network up and running even more complex. With travel restricted or impossible, sending engineers out to remote sites to address downtime issues and resolve network faults may risk compromising their health and safety and therefore not be in any sense realistic.

For every organisation operating today, keeping the business up and running is likely to be a key concern and the need for network resilience has risen in line with this. When disruption occurs, companies need to be prepared. They need a plan that enables them to recover quickly. The current crisis may have focused minds within networking teams and senior leadership to carry out risk analysis and put measures in place to reduce those risks. But what is clearly required is a new approach that goes beyond simply adding redundancy or even improving uptime to add a layer of intelligence – effectively a resilience quotient to the network’s plan B.

That is because for organisations that need to ensure business continuity today, network resilience is key. Network resilience is the ability to withstand and recover from a disruption of service.[1] One way of measuring it is how quickly the business can get up and running again at normal capacity following an outage.

True network resilience is not just about providing resilience to a single piece of equipment whether that be a router or a core switch for example; in a global economy it is important (especially given today’s circumstances) that any such solution can plug into all of the equipment at a data centre or edge site, map it and establish what is online and offline at any given time and importantly wherever in the world it is located.

That enables a system reboot to be quickly carried out remotely. That’s hugely beneficial at all times but especially at the moment where engineers and other workers are often unable to travel to either the data centre or edge location because of lockdowns and everything has to be done from afar. This is a scenario that looks likely to get more severe – in the short-term at least. We are already seeing interconnection providers starting to restrict access to sites with Equinix a case in point.

Alternative arrangements

If the remote reboot does not work, of course, it might well be that an issue with a software update is the root of the problem. With the latest smart out-of-band devices this can be readily addressed, because an image of the core equipment and its configuration can be retained, and the device rebuilt remotely without the need for sending somebody on site. In the event of an outage, it is therefore possible to deliver network resilience via failover to cellular, while the original fault is being remotely addressed, enabling the business to keep running even while the primary network is down.

Building in resiliency through the OOB approach does cost money, of course, but it also pays for itself: certainly over the long-term and often also in just a one-off instance, depending on the outage and associated costs. You might only use this resiliency a couple of times a year, say – but when you need it, you really need it. Indeed, given the current situation, the cost of network resilience is a small price to pay for business continuity. OOB supports easier provisioning of new remote sites to flex and grow the network as well as fast speed of response. It is about insurance, but also remediation and maintenance.

Why prevention is better than cure

It is worth highlighting that time is critical in these scenarios. When network outages occur, the damage is cumulative so businesses need to pre-plan and ensure that they are putting in place network resilience as a preventative rather than a reactive approach. Often today the issue is not fully considered upfront. Organisations often defer discussions around network resilience based on the optimistic hope that a network outage never happens to them. In fact, network resilience should be built into the network from the outset. It should be a tick box exercise but typically it is not. Organisations generally either think that their network is somewhat resilient through the in band path or they are not thinking about their branches or remote sites as much as they should.

Of course anyone that has just suffered a network outage will understand the benefits of out of band (OOB), as a way of keeping their business running in what is effectively an emergency but as referenced above it is likely to be much better to plan for resilience from the word go. After all networks are the ‘backbone’ to almost every organisation today, and many businesses will benefit from bringing network resilience into the heart of their approach from the outset.

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