4 Best Practices for IT Contingency Planning During a Pandemic
In this article
As we enter into September of 2021, COVID-19 continues to cause significant social and economic disruption globally, including rolling border lockdowns, corporate and personal travel restrictions, disparate regional and citywide mandates, and widespread event cancellations. It has also caused extensive supply shortages and posed unique challenges to daily business operations.
Not long before the pandemic hit, WWT undertook the unique challenge of helping a pharmaceutical spin-off plan and implement a complex divestiture and IT disentanglement that required 80-plus site migrations across 31 countries. These migrations involved both tangible and non-tangible aspects, such as reconfiguring network and compute machinery and moving employee inboxes to a new Microsoft Office 365 instance.
When COVID restrictions made WWT's standard migration practices unfeasible, we quickly worked with the customer to design and implement a set of pandemic contingency plans that, in the end, helped ensure the success of the customer's complex site migration plan.
This article highlights four best practices that underpinned the success of this project.
Due to the pandemic, supply chains everywhere had difficulty satisfying unexpected surges in demand, especially for technology manufacturers and vendors specialized in digital and remote workspaces.
Vendors simply could not meet Expected Delivery Dates (EDD) for many networking equipment orders (e.g., switches, compute equipment and wireless controllers) because of travel restrictions and flight reductions.
In a typical supply chain scenario, the most efficient purchasing approach involves delivering equipment directly to customer sites to avoid inventory idle time. But the unpredictable nature of the pandemic, coupled with supply chain disruptions, forced our M&A team to reconsider this purchasing approach.
Bulk orders were placed with customer approval, and equipment was shipped to WWT's North American Integration Center (NAIC) for storage and configuration. When equipment arrived at the NAIC for a specific customer site, we immediately dispatched a migration group. If a particular migration site was impacted by pandemic lockdown, the equipment would be efficiently redirected to another site for deployment. Site deployment dates could be predicted by the expected delivery date of the arrival of the last piece of equipment.
This flexible approach still allowed our customer to prioritize some sites while ensuring a smooth global rollout — all despite the volatile global supply chain environment.
Moreover, our bulk purchasing approach helped the customer achieve a higher volume discount and negotiating power with vendors. These cost reductions helped offset any additional shipping costs incurred from sending equipment to WWT's NAIC before it was shipped to each site.
Migrating IT infrastructure usually consists of two main parts: user migration and network migration.
- User migration typically encompasses laptops, mobile devices, email, software and virtual desktop access.
- Network migration consists of installing, setting up or reconfiguring network infrastructure that impacts the physical site where employees work. Both migrations are typically performed simultaneously.
Due to the industry-spanning shift to remote work and continued delays in equipment arrival, our M&A team initially considered delaying user and network migrations altogether. But as we studied the problem closer, we observed dependencies for both aspects of the migration and soon realized there were potential opportunities to decouple network and user migrations.
For example, tight interdependencies existed between network and end-user migrations at the customer's R&D and manufacturing sites. Workers needed to use new laptops to control the system that migrated onto the new network. Therefore, both network and user migrations needed to be completed at the same time.
However, there were no such interdependencies between network and user migrations for most of the customer's commercial sites, as users were already working independently from the office network due to the pandemic. For these commercial sites, network and user migrations could be decoupled.
If a site had not yet begun circuit installation, or if network equipment had arrived on-site but was waiting for technical resources to be granted on-site access, we proceeded to migrate end-user compute devices (i.e., laptops or tablets), collaboration services, the help desk and other solution aspects that would enable and enhance employee productivity.
Network migration began at these decoupled sites only after all network equipment was delivered and all technical resources gained access.
To successfully conduct user and network migrations separately for all eligible sites when on-site personnel had limited access, we consolidated our normal range of network and user migration approach options.
The following two diagrams outline the four available options for network migrations and five options for user migrations. In both diagrams — from A through D in network migration and A through E in end-user migration — the difficulty of management increased while user experience diminished due to the limited availability of support and functionality.
With 20 possible iterations of migrating networks and users separately, we wanted to further reduce the granularity of migrations and ensure a similar experience for all users. So we narrowed our options down using the following criteria:
- Timeframe requirements
- Whether a site was part of the divestiture or merger sites
- Security risk of limited user migrations
- Employee productivity impact
In the end, sites were migrated using these four options: A + A, D+ A, A + B and D + B.
User migrations were completed separately from network migrations to keep timelines flexible. If sites were only partially cutover, they were either revisited later when restrictions improved or we found alternatives to sending engineers on-site, such as using augmented reality to perform specialized work.
While travel restrictions prevented us from following our standard on-site cutover methodology, choosing to deploy site migrations remotely posed a risky proposition for several reasons:
- Verbal-only communication and instructions can be misinterpreted.
- Installation and deployment guides can be challenging to follow for untrained individuals.
- Many technologies were interdependent, making troubleshooting without experienced specialists on-site more difficult.
Aware of these challenges, WWT chose a comprehensive remote deployment and installation approach that used both virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) to reduce these risks.
Our methodology featured real-time dynamic visual and verbal aid from Microsoft's HoloLens 2 augmented reality headset, which allowed both audio and on-site video streams to be shared between a remote WWT specialist and on-site customer personnel. Our remote specialist could verbally communicate instructions while sending visual cues via augmented reality for on-site headset wearers, as demonstrated in the images below. This solution integrated with Microsoft Teams and operated via both Wi-Fi and cellular connections.
Microsoft's HoloLens 2 solution had two advantages that made remote deployment possible with minimal risk:
- It allowed the on-site headset wearer's hands to be free, making it easier to follow real-time instructions from a specialist with visual cues.
- Remote specialists could easily spot, diagnose and fix issues with visual and human aid, reducing the average time needed to complete a repair.
WWT's new remote deployment process involved deploying one HoloLens headset to each site. The customer's lead on-site install technician was the primary headset user, though occasionally in-country resources from a WWT partner also used the headset to complete discrete tasks.
Completing work remotely allowed WWT to reduce customer costs and ensure the price of the headsets was exceeded by the return on investment. Our customer plans to use these headsets to develop new manufacturing processes and products.
In the face of worldwide uncertainty and a slew of pandemic-imposed restrictions, WWT's M&A team was committed to providing stability for our customer by leveraging cutting-edge technology and developing novel installation processes.
We plan to continue to use these flexible and low-cost strategies for future customers to ensure their businesses thrive — both in normal times and when the unexpected strikes.
* "Introducing Dynamics 365 Remote Assist for HoloLens 2 and mobile devices." YouTube, uploaded by Microsoft HoloLens, 1 April 2020, www.youtube.com/watch?app=desktop&v=d3YT8j0yYl0.