animind - Fotolia

Zoom, Netflix discuss remote network management challenges

COVID-19 forces IT teams to manage company networks remotely. Here are common issues IT teams of all sizes -- like those at Zoom and Netflix -- face and ways to solve them.

While most organizations transitioned to remote work amid COVID-19 concerns, IT teams should continue to handle potential network connectivity issues as they normally would.

Because home networks don't operate the same way as office networks, newly remote employees will likely encounter hurdles as they adjust to a new normal and so will network teams that support them. Many of these hurdles revolve around remote network connectivity and remote network management, among others that directly relate to UX, according to a webinar from Viavi Solutions Inc., a network performance monitoring vendor based in San Jose, Calif.

Three of the biggest issues organizations face amid increased remote network management are the following:

  1. VPN connection issues
  2. increased bandwidth demands
  3. distinctions between network and application issues

Other remote network challenges include security, conferencing and split tunneling. To maintain successful remote network management, organizations should base success not solely on key performance indicators (KPIs), but on employee UX, too, according to Viavi. This largely entails measuring how users interact with applications and how users feel about their experience on the network.

Successful remote network management equals positive UX

Amid the pandemic chaos, all people and organizations must work remotely if possible, including large companies, such as Zoom, Netflix, Dropbox and Equinix -- all of which shared their recent experiences with COVID-19 repercussions in a webinar from Kentik, a network analytics provider based in San Francisco. Their remote network management experiences are relevant for enterprise IT teams as well.

VPN connection issues. Several companies reported surges in VPN use and activity since the start of 2020, due to business and school closings across the country. Standard VPN capacity supports under one-third of employees simultaneously; to jump from that KPI to almost 100% of employees on the VPN can overload the service and cause various connectivity issues, such as slower network speeds.

remote network management issues
For IT teams, remote network management is a major challenge as the majority of employees work from home.

However, some companies that lacked sufficient remote work policies required expedited VPN rollouts to keep business operational amid social distancing mandates. Bill Long, senior vice president of product management at Equinix, said VPN concentrator -- or aggregator -- rollouts not only increased, but accelerated as COVID-19 grew as a threat.

"It seems like what we were expecting to take two years is now taking two weeks or two months. So, things like VPN aggregation for work-at-home folks -- we're seeing lots of that acceleration," Long said during the Kentik webinar.

If an organization's VPN successfully survives the initial usage surge, the VPN can likely provide efficient support to remote employees during the temporary stage of a new normal, Viavi said. To determine potential issues with VPN systems, IT teams should evaluate UX and see if users maintained successful connections to determine specific users' VPN connection issues, rather than only look at potentially staggering KPIs of increased usage.

This evaluation can determine whether a VPN will successfully support all remote employees or if IT teams will need to troubleshoot, as initial KPIs due to surges in VPN usage may appear more jarring than actual UX.

Increased bandwidth demands. For people who work remotely with other family members or roommates, bandwidth becomes a major issue, especially if everyone is on a video conference simultaneously. Zoom employees also have concerns over bandwidth demands and are determined to get the best bandwidth possible, said Alex Guerrero, Zoom's senior manager of SaaS operations.

"That's mainly what I'm looking at: bandwidth, being as close to the customer as possible and speed," Guerrero said during the Kentik webinar.

Bandwidth is also a concern for Netflix employees, said Dave Temkin, vice president of networks at Netflix. Although Temkin and other Kentik webinar panelists said the internet has scaled well to accommodate content delivery and collaboration platforms, efficient remote network management can't support all employee roles.

"One of the big challenges we are trying to figure out is: What parts of [production] can we restart? Things like post-processing, visual effects [and] animation that, traditionally, people have not done from home because they require significant amounts of compute power and bandwidth," Temkin said.

To combat some of this demand, Viavi suggested IT teams provide certificates to authorized devices to ensure they are VPN clients, which can secure both the device and the organization's network.

Distinctions between network and application issues. Application performance problems are typically not network problems and deal more with UX. As more employees work from home, IT teams may assume UX issues stem from the organization's network rather than the user's application performance. These issues may also cause network engineers to doubt their skill sets in this unfamiliar territory, Viavi said.

However, if a business aims to operate as usual -- even in an unusual time -- then network engineers should likewise go about network issues and remote network management as usual. This means conducting packet analysis and other standard troubleshooting techniques to determine whether an issue stems from the business network or from a user's application or network connection.

Netflix's Temkin said his team faced occasional strain in last-mile connections, as did Dzmitry Markovich, senior director of engineering at Dropbox. Markovich said his team works with telecommunications providers to improve last-mile connections and route traffic directly to and from users. Dropbox traffic has transformed significantly since schools and universities began to mandate remote learning.

"We used to have a lot of traffic coming from one university from thousands of accounts, and now, we'll see a lot of traffic coming from thousands of different places from many different networks from the same people," Markovich said.

IT teams should evaluate data delivery to determine if an issue is network- or application-related, Viavi said. If the process to deliver data takes longer than normal, it's a network issue. The network is a delivery truck, not the delivery; networks control data delivery speed, not the actual data. This distinction can prevent headaches for IT teams and improve UX quicker.

Overall, if UX is positive despite potentially alarming KPIs, then IT teams can consider remote network management a success -- at least until new issues are exposed.

Dig Deeper on Network management and monitoring

Unified Communications
Mobile Computing
Data Center