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During a business disruption caused by a natural disaster or a health emergency, it’s safer for employees to stay away from the office. But this means they can’t access their physical desktops. The COVID-19 pandemic offers an opportunity to look at how cloud computing – and specifically cloud desktops – can help organizations keep their employees safe and secure while also maintaining business continuity and productivity.  

The problem with legacy desktops and legacy DR 

Legacy disaster recovery (DR) solutions require complex pre- and post-disaster planning and execution in order to properly implement the solution. This includes long checklists of items that organizations must complete in order to develop and implement a plan that prepares them to restore operations.

Traditional DR solutions have been on the market for many years and are widely used. But they have limitations that undermine their usefulness in times of need. The limitations include:

Capacity constraints: Mobile or offsite DR solutions are limited by physical capacity. During a disaster, there might not be enough space and equipment to adequately service every business in need.

Cost vs. RTO trade-off: Some businesses are under a mandate to meet a low recovery time objective (RTO), and they face an inversely proportional DR solution cost. The lower the RTO, the more expensive the solution becomes.

Hard to test: Because the planning and activation of a legacy DR solution is complicated, many business leaders skip a very important step in DR planning: periodic testing. Absent this critical step, the probability of a DR failure is high.

Travel: Traditional DR solutions require employees to travel either to the offsite location or to the mobile unit. If there is an extreme natural disaster, there will likely be hazards (environmental or otherwise) that preclude people from traveling to the site(s). Workers who rely on physical PCs at their desks cannot work if they can’t reach the DR site.

Limited geographic availability: DR sites and mobile units are not available in all geographies, leaving some companies without a traditional option.

The legacy DR approach

There are basically two legacy disaster recovery solutions for physical PCs. You can reserve a mobile disaster recovery unit that is delivered onsite or you can redirect people to an alternative building that is outfitted with the appropriate IT equipment.  

Both approaches involve complex upfront planning, both are expensive, and both have challenges that create risk for your organization. To determine if it’s time to re-evaluate your approach to DR for employees who typically work in an office, answer these questions:

  • What if you can’t easily test the solution to ensure everything works?
  • What if employees cannot travel to the alternate site?
  • What if you need more PCs than you planned for?
  • What if availability is limited during peak demand?
  • What if travel is restricted due to health concerns?

The cloud DR approach 

Fortunately, with most organizations moving at least some part of their IT infrastructure to the cloud, it only takes a few simple steps to set up “standby” cloud PCs and workstations that are just one click away when you need them. 

Cloud PCs are not a substitute for a complete DR plan. However, with them as part of your DR plan, you will be able to support people getting back to work within minutes or hours, from any device, and from anywhere they have an internet connection. That is a powerful resource in terms of protecting business continuity and productivity. 

With virtual desktops in the cloud, you have a pool of standby, virtual desktops that can be activated on demand with a single click and within hours, you’re back in business. End users can connect to virtual desktops from anywhere on any device.

As noted earlier, there’s no testing required for cloud PCs. However, if that makes you uncomfortable or you need to prove that they work for regulatory reasons, you can “test” your DR PC-readiness with a single click at any time. No one else will notice, and you will not disturb the normal course of business.

When a business-disrupting event occurs, users simply access their cloud PCs or GPU workstations from anywhere that’s safe. Because it is possible to host your cloud PC in the cloud region geographically closest to your users, they are likely to experience good performance – possibly even better than when they’re at the office.

Heading off illness

As we’ve seen in the past – and we’re seeing this now more than ever before with COVID-19 – during a health pandemic, social distancing is important. For all businesses where it is possible, employers are strongly encouraged to let people work from home.

Consequently, organizations are looking for ways to protect employees while also protecting their business from financial and economic downturn – i.e. how do you stay up and running if your employees are advised not to come into the office? This is a critical question that brings up another one: What if, rather than merely being “encouraged,” working at home was a mandatory part of a business continuity plan during a disease outbreak?  

This would mean that when the first person in the office shows up with a contagious illness, everyone immediately retreats to their home offices for a week or so to wait out the incubation period rather than stay around the office, pick up the virus and transmit it further. Better still, the contagious person doesn’t show up to work in the office but stays home at the first sign of illness, preventing others from getting sick.

In this way, remote work just becomes part of a routine. So, when the kids bring the flu home from school, parents could automatically stay home and work, isolating themselves from co-workers for a few days while they may be contagious. If this were the norm, could some of the estimated 290,000 to 650,000 deaths worldwide from influenza each year be prevented? 

Enabling secure remote work 

The technology currently exists to make this possible, of course. When people use cloud desktops, they can access their work from anywhere, using any device. However, not all remote work is created equal. It can introduce new security risks that could potentially take down your business – which is exactly what you’re trying to avoid.

So, as with any cloud endeavor, it’s important to consider your security posture when you include cloud desktops in your DR strategy. Will data remain on edge devices? Will data be encrypted? Is IP theft possible? What user errors might jeopardize security? Make sure to think through the entire project so that remote work becomes a business enabler rather than a liability. 

Disaster-proofing your organization

The consequences of business downtime can be catastrophic. Yet legacy DR plans are cumbersome and difficult to test. They also rely on the assumptions that employees can make it to the new work location and that it is safe for them to be congregating. As the current pandemic has shown, DR and business continuity have become more complicated than merely finding one alternate office site for all employees.

Some companies have already experimented with remote work, and with current technology, there is no reason to exclude this option from your DR plan. In fact, the companies whose workers were already on cloud desktops full time have built-in disaster recovery and business continues as usual, relatively speaking. Today’s cloud PCs enable people to get back to work quickly and from anywhere that they have an internet connection, from any device. This kind of agility is not only a powerful protection against business loss but may even become a business enabler as companies look for partners who can demonstrate this agility no matter what sort of disaster strikes.


Brad Peterson

Brad Peterson is the vice president of marketing for Workspot. He leads marketing strategy and operations for the company’s vision of securely delivering desktops, workstations and apps from 54 regions of Microsoft Azure around the world. … Previously, Peterson was vice president of marketing at DocuSign (IPO), the global leader in esignature and digital transaction management. Before DocuSign, Peterson worked with Citrix for almost a decade where he built the global EBC program, produced solutions videos driving millions in pipeline, and was a regular keynote speaker for Citrix and partner events globally. Peterson joined Citrix in 2004 through the acquisition of Net6, where he relocated to the Citrix EMEA headquarters in Switzerland and launched the new security appliance business over a two-year period to a $30M run rate. Peterson has also held executive roles at Net6 (acquired by Citrix), Octane (acquired by E.piphany), BayStone (acquired by Remedy) and Auspex (IPO). Peterson holds a Master of Science, electrical and computer engineering degree from the University of Southern California and a Bachelor of Science, electrical and computer engineering degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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