Remote Access Solutions Getting Extended and Expanded
Now that we’re several weeks into work from home mandates and clearly still many weeks (and likely months) away from most people being able or willing to go back to their offices, companies are starting to extend and expand their remote access plans. Early on, most organizations had to focus their attention on the critical basics: making sure people had PCs they could work on, providing access to email, chat and video meetings, and enabling basic onramps to corporate networks and the resources they contain.
However, it’s become increasingly clear that the new normal of remote work is going to be here for quite some time, at least for some percentage of employees. As a result, IT organizations and vendors that want to support them are refocusing their efforts on providing safe, reliable remote access to all the same resources that would be available to their employees if they were working from their offices. In particular, there’s a need to get access to legacy applications, sensitive security-focused applications, or other software tools that run only within the walls of corporate data centers.
While there’s little question that the pandemic and its aftermath will accelerate efforts to move more applications to the cloud and increase the usage of SaaS-based solutions, those changes won’t happen overnight. Plus, depending on the company, as much as 2/3 of the applications that companies use to run their businesses may fall into the difficult-to-access legacy camp, so even sped up efforts are going to take a while. Yes, small, medium, and large-sized organizations have been moving to the cloud for some time, and some younger businesses have been able to successfully move most of their computing resources and applications there. Collectively, however, there is still a huge amount of non-cloud workloads which companies depend on that can’t be easily reached (or reached at all) outside the office for many employees.
Of course, there are several ways to solve the challenge of providing remote access to these and other types of difficult to reach tools. Many companies have used services like VPNs (virtual private networks), for example, to provide access to some of these kinds of critical applications for years. In most cases, however, those VPNs were intended for occasional use from a limited set of employees, not full-time use from all their employees. In fact, there are stories of companies that quickly ran into license limitations with the VPN software providers when full-time use occurred.
Many other organizations are starting to redeploy technologies and concepts that some had written off as irrelevant or no longer necessary, including VDI (virtual desktop infrastructure) and thin clients. In a VDI environment—which for the record, has been and continues to be going strong in places like health care facilities, financial institutions, government agencies, call centers, etc. even before the pandemic hit—applications are run in virtualized sessions on servers and accessed remotely via dedicated thin client devices or on PCs that have been configured (or recommissioned) to run specialized client software. The beauty of the thin client computing model is that it is very secure, because thin clients don’t have any local storage and all applications and data stay safe within the walls of the corporate data center or other hosted environment.
Companies like Citrix and VMWare have been powering these types of remote access VDI computing solutions for decades now. Initially, much of the focus was around providing access to legacy applications that couldn’t be easily ported to run on Windows-based PCs, but the basic concept of letting remote workers use critical internal applications, whether they are truly legacy or not, is proving to be extremely useful and timely in our current challenging work from home environment. Plus, these tools have evolved well beyond simply providing access to legacy applications. Citrix, in particular, has developed the concept of digital workspaces, sometimes referred to as Desktop as a Service, which integrates remote access to all types of data and applications, whether they’re public cloud-based SaaS apps, private cloud-based tools, traditional on-premise applications or even mobile applications into a single, secure unified workspace or desktop. (By the way, Desktop as a Service is not to be confused with the very similarly named Device as a Service, which entails a leasing-like acquisition and remote management of client devices. Unfortunately, both get shortened to DaaS.)
In addition to these approaches, we’ve started to see other vendors talk more about some of their remote access capabilities. Google, for example, just released a new blog describing their BeyondCorp Remote Access offering, which enables internal web apps to be opened and run remotely in a browser. Though it’s not a new product from Google—it’s actually been available for several years—its capabilities have taken on new relevance in this extended work from home era. As a result, Google is talking more about the organizations that have deployed it, some best practices on how to leverage it, and more.
Most companies are probably going to need a combination of these and other types of remote access work tools to match the specific needs of their organizations. The simple fact is that disaster recovery and contingency plans are now everyday needs for many companies. As a result, IT organizations are going to have to shift into these modes for much longer periods of time than anyone could have anticipated. Though it’s a challenging task, the good news is, there are a wealth of solid, established tools and technologies available to let companies adapt to the new normal and keep their organizations running this way for some time to come. Yes, adjustments will continue to be made, security issues and approaches have to be addressed, and situations will continue to change, but at least the opportunity is there to let people function in a reasonable meaningful way. That’s something for which we can all be thankful.