How DOD can plan for the pandemic’s next wave by eliminating network choke points

To ensure employees can work efficiently and effectively from home while simultaneously ensuring mission continuity, focus must be shifted to the next choke points: user experience, cybersecurity and collaboration.

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, military IT leaders raced to expand network capacity and upgrade infrastructure to ensure it could meet their mission-critical workloads and support telework. Their successful efforts have established a proof of their own abilities to adapt, scale and secure their networks with speed and agility.

This will come in handy as they ask themselves what new challenges or “choke points” might arise as the nation enters the nest wave of the coronavirus.

As more Department of Defense personnel telework and government and home networks are pushed to the max, here are four things the Pentagon must consider as its plans for the impact on IT systems.

1. Understand how the next wave will differ in its IT impacts

The next wave of the coronavirus is widely predicted to result in more infections and deaths, “possibly at a catastrophic scale,” with cascading and regional impacts into January and February 2021. If this is correct, then lockdowns, restrictions and even illness will likely result in a more dramatic shift to telework, even among mission-critical DOD employees.

Fortunately, the Pentagon has already made network infrastructure investments -- such as the expansion of VPNs -- to accommodate demand so employees can continue to work as normal. But more must be done.

To ensure employees can work efficiently and effectively from home while simultaneously ensuring mission continuity, focus must be shifted to the next choke points: user experience, cybersecurity  and collaboration.

2. Optimize user experience

As we move into the next wave and the demand for high-bandwidth voice and video collaboration tools grows, the focus for DOD IT leaders will shift from infrastructure build-out to performance monitoring and optimization.

For example, measures must be taken to master network latency and ensure any problems are quickly identified and resolved before users are impacted. At the same time, approaches to network performance monitoring should be expanded to prevent outages and make sure existing tools aren’t overloaded by the sheer volume of traffic coming at them.

Similarly, as employees move offsite, the adoption of software-defined wide-area network technologies -- the gold standard for supporting remote office networks -- is exploding. To ensure the performance and health of the SD-WAN deployment, robust network performance management is critical. This approach also provides much-needed visibility into whether traffic is being prioritized and routed properly based on the policies defined in the environment.

With bandwidth at a premium and the lines between work and personal internet use increasingly blurred, tighter controls are necessary to preserve bandwidth for work-related traffic. Split VPNs, for instance, prioritize traffic entering the Pentagon’s network via an encrypted VPN tunnel while personal traffic is routed through the public internet. This ensures high-quality service on the network is maintained for work-related activities.

3. Boost cybersecurity maturity at the edge

Ensuring the network is as secure as it was prior to the pandemic will continue to challenge military IT leaders. As more Pentagon employees work from home, the attack surface will continue to expand, causing a potential choke point for cyber risk management. Though they were previously focused on getting everyone connected, IT leaders will shift their focus to potential risk vectors on home networks.

Training can help. With little visibility or control of the employee’s Wi-Fi and internet, educating employees (and contractors) on the security risks associated with their activities -- such as failing to disable their VPN connection at the end of the workday -- is critical.

Furthermore, as the number of endpoint devices accessing military networks and systems increases, thought should be given to bolstering endpoint protection across the IT infrastructure. DOD IT leaders must prioritize antimalware protection, tighten controls around access rights management, monitor for indicators of compromise and automate device patching on remote machines. These and other important controls and policies are necessary to secure vulnerable endpoints from bad actors and careless insiders -- now the top security threat for public sector organizations, according to a SolarWinds survey).

4. Push for advanced collaboration capabilities

As workers headed home in the early spring, the Pentagon quickly rolled out a Microsoft Teams-based remote work environment that now has 850,000 users. Despite their many benefits, these tools fail to replicate low-tech, pre-COVID work practices such as popping by someone’s desk or getting in a conference room and brainstorming on a whiteboard. This has led to another potential choke point: tool fatigue.

To move the mission forward in the new normal, IT leaders must look to their providers for next-generation collaboration features -- supported by a robust network -- they can implement in combat theater scenarios.

It’s time to rethink and reprioritize

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for organizations within DOD to be nimble. Just as the initial pandemic response accelerated IT modernization initiatives, as we enter the next wave, a rethink is required. Priorities must be revisited to balance performance and security.

The Pentagon must acknowledge the concept of the network has changed drastically, the thinking that  “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it” must cease. As departments move to the cloud and personnel are dispersed on a scale never seen before, IT leaders must do everything in their power to eliminate choke points and build resilient infrastructures to support a secure user experience and a rich collaborative environment.

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