The Definitive Guide to IT Management for a Distributed Workforce

IT management distributed workforce

Business communications have advanced to a point where people expect to be able to work from anywhere, anytime.

 

The Problem

Little thought is given to opening new offices, allowing staff to work from home, or being able to effectively collaborate over large distances.

While advances in technology offer some amazing benefits, they also present some enormous challenges for IT managers. The old reality was that they would maintain a single physical network where 200 employees would come work on company-issued devices. The servers lived there onsite on the same physical network as all the employees. IT could control all the variables with precision.

Nowadays, those same 200 employees may be distributed across the country or globe. They can be working from home, on a hotel Wi-Fi network, from a coffee shop, or from multiple office locations. IT is now expected to manage multiple office networks, and inbound connections from hundreds or potentially thousands of networks that users could be connecting from. They don’t have any control over the type of hardware being used in these locations, and their employees are frequently bringing their own devices and adding those into the mix. With all this added complexity the demand that all the applications work seamlessly all the time persists.

To be able to continue to deliver an excellent user experience all hardware at all locations must be maintained. Security threats make it necessary to patch and update hardware and software across all locations, with new vulnerabilities popping up every day. Data must be able to update live across the entire organization to prevent duplication of work from remote teams.

There are additional challenges in providing support to these users in variable locations across the country and the world. How do you get into their machines to work on them? How do you fix hardware when you don’t have an IT resource within 1000 miles? How do you monitor their hardware and software for security? How do you keep an accurate inventory of hardware assets with this kind of distributed access model?

IT managers have been forced to increase headcount, and invest in additional tools to be able to meet these demands. Pressures from upper management to cut IT expenses and do more with less are contrary to the new reality. What’s the solution?

 

The good news

The good news is that technology has some effective solutions to IT management for distributed workforces. They can cut down on needed resources, automate routine IT tasks, and generally make an IT guys life easier. There are so many in fact, that choosing which are the best fit for your business can sometimes be a struggle.

 

Start with the workload

It’s important to first examine the workload that you need to be able to make available for your organization. What kind of applications do folks need access to? What do they need to run? Do they have heavier database backends, or are there simpler infrastructure? Are their design functions at work? Do they have 3D Graphics that need to be accounted for? Once you’ve taken the time to examine your specific workload closely it will be easier to identify solutions for making it globally accessible. Best practices for IT dictate that you start with the simplest possible solution that will meet the needs, and then work from there.

 

SAS Solutions

The very simplest place to start for most business is to see if there is a commercially available web-based application that will meet the needs of your workload. No need to overcomplicate things unnecessarily. The less moving parts there are to maintain the better. If there is a web-based app to meet your needs this may be the silver bullet. Make sure to demo products carefully and ask key staff members to sit in. They will help you to ask all the right questions and ensure the product has the functionality that you need.

If there is a product already available that meets your needs this will likely save you time and lower support costs. It gives you fewer servers onsite and hence less IT infrastructure to manage. SAS applications are built securely out of the gate and are immediately accessible worldwide. They are typically maintained by the SAS vendor, so there is less maintenance for your IT team. The downside of these solutions is that they can sometimes be costly, and frequently will not be customizable to your needs. If they are a good fit they can be a great solution, but vet them carefully.

 

Terminal Server / Citrix

What if nothing exists? There just isn’t a SAS product around that meets your needs, or there is but the cost is prohibitive? What else can be done?

A terminal server may be a great option for your organization. If you currently house your servers in-house and have applications running on them that power your business, you can likely make them globally accessible through the use of a terminal server.

The concept is simple. You run the applications on your servers as you would normally to serve them out to folks on the local network. The terminal server sits on the local network and can run these applications. The idea is that folks from anywhere in the world can remote into the terminal server to have access to the needed apps. What gets passed back to them is just screenshots of the applications they are accessing remotely. It happens in real time, so the user experience feels just like a normal desktop. This allows them to connect back from various devices, and from anywhere with an Internet connection.

This is not a new technology. We’ve been using it for years with success, and the latest versions have added some important features that make it more user-friendly than ever.

Some terminal server users would get confused as to what was the desktop on their local machine, and what was the desktop on the terminal server. There was a certain amount of mental overhead in having to switch back and forth between the two. Citrix created a solution for this years ago called published apps.

Published apps are when the work is happening on the terminal server, but it’s presented to the user in a manner that looks like it’s running locally on their machine. No extra windows to click into, and no second desktop to deal with. They just have a desktop shortcut like they normally would, but instead of opening an application locally when clicked, it opens an emulated session on the terminal server of the same application. Frequently users don’t even know they’re accessing the terminal server.

Years ago, you would have to purchase another expensive layer of software called Citrix to be able to use published apps. Today Microsoft has built this functionality into the most current versions of server when you purchase the associated remote desktop CALS. This makes published apps more accessible and easy to manage than ever before.

Potential drawbacks to this type of solution are that it does require hardware onsite that needs to be managed. There is also cost for Microsoft server and for the related CALS you would need to set it up. Accessibility would be dependent on hardware, Internet, and power at the location housing the terminal server. If your business requires 24/7/365 availability of resources and no downtime that could be an issue. Another thing to note is that not every software is compatible with terminal server emulation. With that said terminal server can be a cost-effective way to publish your applications globally, and can handle specific software workloads that SAS apps don’t exist for yet.

 

Hosted Servers

hosted servers

If neither SAS nor terminal services are a fit for your workload because of uptime requirements, specifics of the software or other factors, hosting your servers in the cloud may be the best fit for you.

A hosted server is a relatively simple concept. The idea is that you take the servers housing your applications and data out of your office and put them into a data center. This can mean essentially renting rack space at the data center, but more frequently means that you pay a provider for a certain amount of computing resources on their servers and equipment and move your workload to it. At the data center, they enjoy the advantages of redundant power, Internet, HVAC, etc. This allows data centers to guarantee much higher uptimes than most businesses can when houses servers in-house.

Most hosting providers can offer hardware as a service, which allows you to focus your efforts on supporting your applications and providing a good end-user experience.

There are a TON of different options for hosted servers. Public, private, and hybrid cloud solutions are available. Each has its own distinct advantages and disadvantages. Again, start with your workload when looking at cloud solutions to determine which is the best fit for your circumstances. There is a significant amount of complexity to the different cloud solutions available, but we don’t have time to cover it all here. Take your time in deciding, and don’t hesitate to consult an expert to help you decide what is best for your business.

Whether you choose SAS applications, Terminal server, or Hosted Cloud servers as your infrastructure the central idea is the same. Serve up those applications from a single point to minimize the amount of support needed to maintain the solution. Centralization also makes updating applications a breeze and ensures that collaboration is simple for your teams. It also allows them to share data in real time regardless of geographic location.

 

Endpoints

Once you’ve done the work of finding and implementing the right type of infrastructure for your business that will allow you to operate effectively as a distributed workforce, it’s time to figure out solutions that will allow you to maintain, secure, and support all those endpoints. If you’re dealing with 200 computers scattered across 20+ physical locations around the globe it can be a nightmare to take care of them.

Again, you need to figure out how to centralize solutions and support for those endpoints no matter where they are to be efficient and lower support costs. What’s the solution?

 

Remote Monitoring and Management

To centralize maintenance, security, and support for endpoints an RMM solution is a great way to go. RMM solutions typically include functionality that will allow you to manage all your endpoints from a central pane of glass. These software solutions will also have important integrations with ticketing and other software’s that make it easier on IT. Here are some important features to look for in a top shelf RMM solution.

1. Monitoring and Alerting – One of the key features of a great RMM solution is that it allows IT to act proactively instead of reactively. IT empowers you by monitoring machines for performance. You get an alert if they go offline. You get an alert if the hard drive has passed your thresholds for available space. The best RMM solutions even allow you to be more granular and monitor for things like services. This way if things are getting out of line IT gets a notification and has a chance to remediate the issues before it stops production.

2. Auto-Remediation – Another thing to look for in a quality RMM solution is that they can trigger more than just alerts. Many RMM’s have functionality built in where an alert triggers a reaction on. For example, if a hard drive passes the threshold of 95% full that you have set for it auto-remediation starts to act. It runs a script that clears up all temp files, dumps the trash, and eliminates old logs. If this frees up enough space that its now beneath your threshold it will count the issue as resolved, and close out its own ticket. If this doesn’t happen the ticket gets kicked over to IT’s queue so that a human can investigate and resolve. This is one small example, but auto-remediation can be used for a myriad of things.

3. Patches and Updates – Microsoft release patches and updates for Windows every single week. Most of these patches are for security, and need to be applied to keep your business safe from cyber threats. The problem is that they take time to run on every machine, and if an IT resource tries to manage them manually it can be a super time-consuming task. A great RMM solution will allow you to central administer all patches and updates across the network regardless of the physical location of the device. With our example network of 200 machines that could save you over 30 hours of labor every single week. Oh, and you can set it to run patches in the middle of the night so it doesn’t bog your users down during the workday.

4. Hardware Inventory – Another challenge of a remote workforce is trying to keep any kind of accurate inventory on the hardware that is owned by your organization, and where it is physically. A great RMM solution will allow you to have a complete hardware inventory for all machines on or off network with a couple of clicks. You can see what machines are new, and which are getting old and need to be replaced. You can use hardware inventory to forecast hardware replacement costs and plan your IT budget.

5. Software Inventory – Managing software and licenses across a distributed workforce can also be a challenge. A great RMM solution allows you to know every piece of software installed on every machine across the entire organization. The very best will also allow you to whitelist and blacklist applications to ensure security and better manage software licensing.

6. Scripting capabilities – Another potential challenge with a distributed workforce is the task of rolling out new software or solutions across the organization. This can be another incredibly time-consuming task, and have significant labor costs. A great RMM tool allows you to script out the installs of new applications to machines across your entire organization anywhere they have Internet. This saves valuable time and IT resources and makes deploying new solutions a snap.

remote support

7. Remote Support – Another challenge with providing IT support for remote workers is being able to connect to their machine when they have a problem. A great RMM solution will have built-in functionality that allows you to remote into any machine on or off the network with a couple of clicks to provide support to the end user. It will require no interaction on the user’s part, and give you all the control you need to fix even advanced issues remotely.

8. Integration – IT must have a way to track all of the alerts generated by your RMM solution, as well as support requests submitted by end users. A great RMM will either have a ticketing system built in, or have tight integration with a robust ticketing system that allows your IT team to carefully track each request.

9. Antivirus – Another need for your remote workforce is to provide them some basic security protection in the form of antivirus. A great RMM solution will integrate with quality Antivirus products so that you can centrally administer this solution as well. This saves time and money for the IT staff.

10. Backups – Ensuring that you have backups on all critical equipment is an essential part of IT. With data across a lot of machines, and in a lot of physical locations managing backups can be a challenge. The best RMM solutions will have integration with quality backup products and centralize management of backups. They will also have built-in monitoring and alerting capabilities so that you will know if your backups ever have a problem.

 

Lower IT Support Costs

Quality infrastructure that is a fit for your business’s computing needs and the right RMM solution to help manage your endpoints will translate into lower IT costs for your organization. You’ll be able to effectively support users no matter where they are in the world. You’ll have a centralized data infrastructure that can be updated in real time so that users are all on the same page all the time.

Central management and standardization of IT resources are two of the most powerful ways you have at your disposal to allow you to do more with less.

Frequently a partnership with a qualified managed services partner or other organization with experience and skills in setting up this type of infrastructure is recommended. They can examine your workload and make a professional recommendation based on your specific set of requirements. If you’re starting this kind of project from zero it can be particularly daunting. Having an expert in your corner to be your advocate can be a huge benefit.

 

Sum it up

If you want to manage IT effectively for your distributed organization start with the workload. Then determine which type of infrastructure best fits your unique circumstances. Work on getting that stood up and ready to go. This will help your teams to be able to collaborate effectively and improve their workflows.

Once the backbone of your network is up and running turn your attention to how you can effectively manage your endpoints. Deploy a quality RMM solution that will allow you to effectively manage endpoints no matter their geographic location. This is a core piece of technology that will make or break the support you’re able to provide for remote workers. It is also an important management tool to ensure that network security is kept up to date across endpoints.

Lastly, if you get stuck or are unsure hire an expert. Find a quality managed service provider that will work with you and give sage advice. They can help guide you and even implement needed solutions on your behalf. The benefits that you’ll see across your organization can be immediate and powerful, so it’s worth the effort to do it right. You’ll be glad that you did.

 


About the Author:

Mike Herrington is VP of Sales and Marketing for i.t.NOW, and a 10-year veteran of the IT services industry. i.t.NOW is a provider of managed IT services, and has been helping clients with distributed workforces to better manage their IT for over 20 years. He loves all things technology, and when he’s not goofing off with the latest gadget you’ll probably find him out running a Ragnar somewhere. You can read more of his writing about business and technology here on i.t.NOW’s blog.

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