During the COVID-19 pandemic, most organizations have either mandated or strongly encouraged employees, contractors, and others—essentially, their entire workforces—not to commute or come into offices, but instead to work from home (WFH) or remotely.
This approach to “flattening the curve” is one way the world is coming together to mitigate the effects of the fast-spreading coronavirus, before it overwhelms hospitals, healthcare staff, and first responders.
Globally, many companies find themselves with a similar challenge: How to enable dozens, hundreds, or thousands of onsite workers to immediately work remotely—regardless of whether they had ever done so before. For F5, this notably meant supporting employees based in its Seattle-based headquarters (one of the first COVID-19 hotspots in the U.S.), as well as for office workers in 80+ locations in over 40 countries worldwide. Each of these areas are dealing with different threat levels based on rapidly changing data and emerging guidance from federal, state, and local governments.
This article takes a closer look at the activities of the Technology Services team at F5 during the course of March 2020. To protect employees, their families, and our communities, F5 leadership directed our global workforce—over 5,000 strong—to work remotely due to the virulent coronavirus pandemic. These details are captured not merely for posterity or to illustrate the company’s level of commitment to customers, but also as a sort of comparable blueprint for other parts of the globe that have just begun to make this transition, as well as a reference point for future crisis readiness planning.
The vast majority of F5 employees are equipped to work remotely from Day One, in that they are issued a laptop with the BIG-IP Access Policy Manager (APM) client, our access management solution, pre-installed and ready to use. BIG-IP APM delivers remote access via SSL VPN, web access management (WAM), and Identity Aware Proxy (IAP), enabling Zero Trust application access. It also checks the security posture of user devices before granting the user and their device access to an application (IAP) or to the corporate network (SSL VPN), and continues to monitor the user’s device for compliance during their application or network session.
As the early weeks of the crisis unfolded, the F5 Technology Services team made marked efforts to be assertive in their response to the pandemic. As COVID-19 began spreading significantly across China, F5’s Technology Services team played an essential role in initiating communications with other internal F5 teams—such as the Office of the Chief Digital Information Officer, the executive communications team, the Incident Response Team (IRT), and internal IT teams, among others—to brief them on the developing situation and to keep open lines of communication on steps to address the burgeoning crisis.
While the coronavirus spread quickly from China to other countries in Asia, F5 Technology Services set to the process of ensuring remote access capacity, specifically checking that F5’s internet circuit bandwidth and number of allocated VPN sessions were sufficient for the region. The team monitored (and continues monitoring) utilization and actively investigates problem reports. Technology Services also deployed software telephones using VoIP to Asia-based workers to enable remote work while still leveraging F5’s corporate phone system.
Once COVID-19 was detected in the United States and Canada, the F5 Technology Services team performed a similar capacity examination for the Americas, as well as for Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. The analysis of capacity exam results showed that the internet bandwidth for F5’s Seattle data center needed to be increased. The increase in internet bandwidth was accelerated to assure sufficient capacity to enable the office-based employees of the company’s largest location, the F5 Tower in downtown Seattle, to quickly become a home-based and remote workforce. At the same time, the Technology Services team also segregated heavy consumers of internet bandwidth—such as directing F5’s product build pipeline to cloud marketplaces and cloud-based backups, separate from home and remote worker traffic, in order to minimize bandwidth contention.
A similar approach was taken in other markets. After analyzing the capacity data for Europe, the Middle East, and Africa (EMEA), the F5 Technology Services team determined that the existing deployment of BIG-IP APM was likely going to be insufficient to address the potential demand for F5 employees and contractors working from home or remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result of that analysis, the team quickly deployed and stood up a new BIG-IP APM in the F5 London data center and made it available to F5 employees and contractors throughout EMEA. By doing this, the F5 Technology Services team insured both sufficient capacity and redundancy for the region.
As remote work directives began being implemented in EMEA, the F5 Technology Services team identified key groups within the region requiring more robust and reliable remote phone support. To address these challenges, the team was able to quickly migrate those key groups to F5’s deployment of Microsoft Teams, of which F5 is an early adopter for Teams’ voice rollout, enabling the identified groups in EMEA to use software phones on their computers or mobile devices.
As they responded quickly and efficiently to the work from home or remote directives, the F5 Technology Services team also took on the challenge of addressing automated monitoring and alerting. The team leveraged existing monitoring platforms to create automated alerts on internet bandwidth utilization at F5 data centers and APM sites. They also created specific utilization graphs to track particularly intensive or heavy traffic on the company’s internet connections, such as Zoom teleconferencing, build pipeline traffic, and cloud backups.
But, as it is with every deployment, not everything has gone perfectly smooth. Most trouble tickets filed and being worked on, though, deal with local ISP capacity, and not F5 resources. While it has been difficult at times to determine where a bottleneck lies for a specific user’s problem, the team continues to work through issues as they come up.
There are also new practical challenges, such how to handle onsite work (hardware issues, physical installations, HVAC considerations, etc.) with the mandate to work remotely, and challenges with vendor availability.
In addition, there have been the basic logistic challenges of helping employees accustomed to an office environment adjust to working remotely. Many of these challenges have been with physical equipment and modifying formerly in-person processes such as onboarding new hires. In many F5 offices, particularly those offices with onsite Technology Services staff, new hires are issued laptops that are generally setup by the onsite staff. But now, with all work and workers being remote, new hires have to be onboarded remotely once all their systems can be received.
As an example, in Washington state the stay-at-home order implemented has an allowance for critical business functions. This enabled volunteers on the F5 Technology Services team go to the office and prep laptops for new hires on a limited basis, shipping them out for all new hires in the U.S. This all-volunteer force has been able to ensure new hires are up-and-running without delaying their onboarding or the work they’ve been hired to perform.
It’s not just the F5 Technology Services team that has gone above and beyond to ensure that the company’s workforce can remain productive during this unique time. For instance, the F5 Revenue Operations team was concerned about a requirement to work from home during the all-important quarter end. So, that team worked with the Technology Services team to have their existing office setups boxed up as kits so that their exact environments could (as much as possible) be replicated in their homes as needed. In some cases the director of the Revenue Operations team even transported these ‘office kits’ in his SUV!
The keys to a smooth transition of—along with continued operations and productivity for—an office-based workforce to a home or remote workforce are communication and collaboration. The F5 Technology Services team leverages myriad forms of communication to ensure that tasks are addressed effectively. At the time of this writing, they collaborate live at least twice daily in stand-up meetings, enabling them to connect, share what they have been working on, ask for assistance if needed, and celebrate wins. They are leveraging visual task boards to track assignments. There are even virtual Happy Hours, enabling the newly home-bound and remote workers to catch up as they (and their families) navigate these strange times together.
The COVID-19 pandemic has created a new work reality almost overnight. F5, through an amazing Technology Service team and our worldwide workforce, has been able to adapt quickly to this new world. Globally, companies like F5 are finding new ways to reinforce flexibility and innovative collaboration as key elements of employee culture. Code connects us all as we work from home and remotely, helping us stay productive as we isolate to protect ourselves, our communities, and the world at large.
For more information on how F5 can help companies successfully address the current climate, visit the company’s COVID-19-focused business continuity page.