Home network setups pose remote work challenge

Having Citrix Workspace in place pre-pandemic made the shift to remote work easier for William Fry employees, but shoddy home networks posed a significant hurdle for the IT team.

The IT team at William Fry, a global law firm based in Dublin, faced the same remote work challenge at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic as so many others: how to ensure its 470 employees could pack up their laptops and do their jobs from home.

Oisin Concannon, IT manager at the law firm, said the initial transition was pretty seamless. Employees already accessed desktops virtually through a Citrix Workspace application; the firm already used Citrix ShareFile for secure document sharing and Citrix Endpoint Management to create a "secure bubble" for laptops, iPads and iPhones. Even those using a personal computer could easily access their virtual desktop with the HTML5 version of Citrix Workspace.

The bigger remote work challenge, Concannon says in this Q&A, had to do with the unknowns at home, which ultimately led the law firm's 12-person IT department to remotely diagnose issues with home network setups.

How has Citrix Workspace played a role in keeping William Fry going during the pandemic?

Oisin Concannon, IT manager, William FryOisin Concannon

Oisin Concannon: I've heard of other firms or other businesses that might have had a small deployment of Citrix and they would use that just for remote access, but they would have fat clients with local apps for everyday use. And then they might have run into capacity issues, perhaps.

We didn't have any of those issues because we designed our infrastructure from the bottom-up to have everyone on Citrix all the time. We have enough bandwidth to do that, because Citrix is very efficient with bandwidth.

In terms of the challenge of people working from home, people just bought their laptops home; they just fired up their laptops and logged on to Workspace and launched their virtual desktop. It wasn't any more challenging than that initially.

What challenges came up after that initial phase?

Concannon: A lot of people, maybe 10% to 20%, worked remotely quite often, and, if they had any issues with their home network, they would have had them long resolved. But for people who were working from home for the very first time, there's crazy stuff people do at home with their home networks.

In Dublin, you can get anywhere from, say, a couple of megabits to two, three, four hundred megabits pretty easily. Some people just go for the basic broadband package and that might be a basic DSL line with a theoretical max of 10 megabits.

I spoke to one partner trying to do a video conference call and her kids were watching Netflix on their smart TV. They had an Xbox as well, and her husband was upstairs in his office, also on video calls and working remotely, and she had 10-megabit broadband. I had to sit down with people [like this] and explain what 10 megabits is so that they would understand that their broadband actually wasn't fit for purpose.

How do you start that conversation?

Concannon: We were a tiny bit reactive at first, but when we spotted the problem, we got a little bit more proactive. When you're working at home and you're using the Workspace app on your PC to connect to your virtual desktop, that Workspace app is reporting into a director in Citrix. What is the ICA latency [a protocol specific to Citrix Systems] and the round-trip time? That's a great metric to keep an eye on. And if you're seeing someone with a lot of spikes in latency, they're having trouble.

How do you figure out what an employee's home network looks like to pinpoint where a problem might be coming from?

Concannon: Usually when I talk to someone, I try not to be technical. I just ask questions like: Who's your broadband provider? Where's the box? Where's the router? ... Are you connected over Wi-Fi? Are you connected over USB cable? What's in your house? Do you use boosters? Do you have any other kind of Wi-Fi devices? They may not know what a booster is, someone else may have put it in. I try and keep it really basic and build up a picture in my mind of what's going on.

I'll give you another example. This partner is getting incredibly poor broadband speeds in his garden office. At his main desk, he gets 90 megabits inside his house, but in his garden office, he was getting less than one megabit. ... It turned out that he had an electrician -- not a network person -- run the CAT 5e cabling out to his garden office. And the electrician had done a really bad splicing job to join up some network cables -- the installation was peeled off on the copper core and copper cores were twisted together and they're all exposed.  

Funnily enough, he took a picture to show me what it was like. And I said, 'Yeah, that's what I expected.' And I said, ... 'If I was to fix it, this is what I'd do.' Well, he went off to Amazon and got a crimping tool and bits and pieces for himself and he recrimped those cables and connected them up correctly. And then he was getting proper broadband in his garden office.

One of the nice things, from an IT perspective, that's come out of this is that people are becoming more self-reliant.
Oisin ConcannonIT manager, William Fry

How often are you having photos sent so that you can diagnose issues?

Concannon: Only like two or three times. In terms of talking to people, I didn't count, but it was definitely over 20 people. And I know our help desk was talking to people about this kind of stuff as well. But, people adapt, like the partner who bought his own crimping tools off Amazon and fixed it himself.

One of the nice things, from an IT perspective, that's come out of this is that people are becoming more self-reliant. In the law firm, a lot of the time, people depend on IT to do the simplest of things. But now they're in a situation where they're forced to be more self-reliant. They try to fix the problems themselves and they listen to us and they're willing to give things a shot.

How did you coach your IT department on how to handle these new interactions with employees?

Concannon: [We use] a monitoring solution called ControlUp. It has a long history with Citrix, it was built [initially] for monitoring Citrix systems, and it has very good insight reporting. We can see people's latency as they've connected to their virtual desktop from home over any period of time that it's kept data for. It's just a graph -- zero to whatever number of milliseconds in terms of round-trip latency.

The first thing I showed people on our team was how to check that because someone could ring up and say they have a problem. ... Until we've investigated, you can't trust what they said they think is the problem to be the actual problem. This is one of the first things to diagnose because it was a very common problem at the start for a significant minority who didn't really have great setups at home. ... I [also] tell the IT team to just have a conversation. Don't try and get too technical.

Do you feel like this situation will change the relationship between IT and employees?

Concannon: Yeah, actually. In the office, I find that you're so busy with IT work, the only time you see people is when they come through your door, or the main method of interaction might be emails or [Microsoft] Teams conversations.

We've been looking into reporting for a video conferencing solution, which we only really bought as a room-to-room system but has iPad apps and iPhone apps and runs on our laptops. There's just been a massive explosion in the use of video conferencing. I've seen and spoken to a lot of people that I wouldn't normally have spoken to.

Q&A edited for brevity and clarity.

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