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Viewpoint: How Physical IT Infrastructure Can Hold Back Remote-Work Plans

A man in glasses is using a laptop in a server room.

​Did your company's remote-work game plan rely heavily on cloud computing? If so, you are not alone. Corporate spending on cloud computing increased precipitously last year, even as overall IT spending dipped slightly. And that spending is sure to increase as a growing number of businesses, both large and small, pursue plans to transition most or all their workforce to fully remote arrangements.

To many business leaders, the ability of their employees to leverage cloud-based solutions, particularly software-as-a-service (SaaS) offerings, has demonstrated that physical office space is no longer crucial to their success. It is an attractive picture. However, it is not entirely accurate. While it is true that most enterprise resource planning (ERP), customer relationship management (CRM) and productivity apps are no longer beholden to physical servers with their cloud-hosted subscription-based models, most businesses have applications and services that are not easily separated from their physical systems.

It frequently surprises business leaders to learn that the thing holding them back from their remote-work vision is a piece of hardware in their office. But company servers often host mission-critical IT infrastructure. One example of this type of infrastructure is specialty or custom-built software—basically, stuff that cannot be easily replaced. This software may have been built specially by or for the company, or it may be legacy software that is no longer supported. In any case, there is no ready-made cloud solution such that the company can buy an enterprise license, transfer all their data and get to work.

Thankfully, with the right know-how, most software of this kind can still be migrated relatively quickly to a public cloud provider, such as Amazon Web Services (AWS) or Microsoft Azure. By using a public cloud provider, customers, instead of owning and maintaining the hardware themselves, merely rent computing power. Some leaders may be skeptical of what they perceive as handing over their data and code to a third party. This skepticism is unwarranted, however. Using a public cloud service, your business maintains total control over all its code and data. The only difference is where that code and data is stored. Moreover, reputable cloud providers offer data privacy and security features that almost always exceed what a single firm can do in-house.

There are also other unexpected benefits of migrating this software to the cloud. Cloud providers typically offer much higher levels of uptime and availability than on-premises services, with strong backup and disaster recovery features. Using a public cloud can also be more cost-effective. Once you factor in the cost of expenditures like business-class internet and electricity to power and cool on-premises hardware, the cost benefits start to tip strongly in the direction of cloud-based services.

But perhaps the biggest benefit of using a public cloud is the scalability. In IT, a typical lifecycle—the time between major hardware purchases—is three years. That means IT leaders must plan and purchase right now for the needs of a growing company several years from now. There is always the danger of buying too little and not having enough capacity to handle the business's future needs. On the other hand, buying too much can be a major waste of resources. With the cloud, you can always have exactly as much storage and computer power as you need. Getting more space is as easy as the click of a mouse.

Once you've made the switch to SaaS ERP solutions and you've migrated your on-premises software to a cloud host, you should be all set, right? Not so fast: There is still the issue of virtual private networks, or VPNs. Businesses of all sizes use these encrypted tunnels to enable secure remote access to software and tools from any location. VPNs are an absolute must in the era of remote work, where employees may be accessing company data from unsecured home networks or café WiFi. Thankfully, VPNs no longer need to be entwined with your company's physical real estate or its ERP software. Palo Alto Networks and Cisco are just two of the major technology firms offering VPN solutions that integrate seamlessly with the top public cloud providers.

To sum up, business leaders who envision a fully remote workforce, independent from their physical office space, are right in principle. In practice, however, things are a touch more complicated. Nevertheless, with a little bit of elbow grease and someone on their team with a good understanding of the technical challenges, business leaders can, in the vast majority of situations, harness the power of the cloud and make their remote-work vision a reality.

Michael Sellai has nearly 20 years of information technology experience and is a partner in managed IT services in the San Francisco office of BPM, a public accounting and advisory firm.


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