As the coronavirus spreads, the possibility for a major disruption of an organization's day-to-day activities grows. IT professionals at a municipality in California and an academic institution in Australia said virtual desktops are a key part of their business continuity plans, while experts said the epidemic might spur adoption of the technology -- especially desktop-as-a-service DaaS products.
The coronavirus outbreak is forcing companies to review their disaster continuity plans. Some, like Twitter this week, have encouraged employees to work from home if they can, while others have restricted travel, as well as withdrawn from or canceled conferences.
According to industry observers, coronavirus concerns may drive businesses to virtual desktops -- and, in particular, cloud-based desktop-as-a-service models. But it's unclear whether U.S. businesses and the country's internet infrastructure can support a large-scale work-from-home strategy.
Plans in place
Some organizations have already been taking action. Jordan Catling, associate director of client technology at the University of Sydney, said the educational institution began collaborating with Citrix Systems on coronavirus planning in January.
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The university, he said, needed an option in case classes could not be held in person, but also needed to ensure both the physical and digital security of all involved. As the school already had a relationship with Citrix, using a wide variety of its desktop and application virtualization software, it was natural to partner with the firm in developing plans.
"The safety and security of our students, staff and community are paramount to us," he said. "We're thinking about, 'OK, how could things evolve?'"
Given the uncertain nature of the threat, Catling said, the university needed to guarantee the virtualization capacity to accommodate many students was available while, at the same time, not locking itself into too much.
"It could be that we need to rapidly scale up the size of the environment, but, at the same time, perhaps things will change dramatically, and we'll have the full cohort on campus once again," he said.
The need for preparedness in the face of disruption, Catling said, has been underscored by recent events.
"Australia, and in particular New South Wales, has been through quite a lot in the last six months, from bush fires ... to lots of localized flooding," he said. "We've had quite a testing period of time, and this is the kind of solution where we can provide access to our academic institute no matter where [the students] are."
Chris McMasters, CIO for the city of Corona, Calif., said his municipality began to virtualize its operations two years ago. His city, too, turned to Citrix after previously relying upon on-premises backups in case of emergency, and it has deployed the company's Workspace platform.
"[With on-premises backups] at any given time, we could have a major earthquake, and then we're down," he said. "That was our first, major push with it -- how do we maintain continuity in the case of a natural disaster?"
Many of the municipal services upon which people depend -- like utilities and emergency dispatch -- need functioning technology and networks, McMasters said.
"Before I got into government ... I took for granted that, when you turn the [faucet], the water comes out [or] when you call 911, the police are going to come," he said. "It's all dependent on technology."
Like natural disasters, McMasters said, coronavirus poses a potential problem to keeping local government functioning. He said, for his city, having the ability to "flip the switch" and use virtual desktop technology provided peace of mind.
Experts said companies seeking a way to maintain operations in the face of a disruption like a potential pandemic may find virtual desktops to be the ideal solution. Andrew Hewitt, an analyst at Forrester Research, said the coronavirus puts pressure on businesses to provide remote-work options.
"[Virtual desktop infrastructure] certainly is one flavor [among other remote-work technologies] that can help in a disaster scenario, particularly if the workforce still uses traditional desktops or if it's a very homogenous computing environment, such as a call center," he said.
Dion Hinchcliffe, vice president and principal analyst at Constellation Research, said there is "no question" that coronavirus had organizations seeking alternatives to large-scale gatherings.
"The CIOs and IT leaders I've spoken with this week are busy scrambling rapidly to beef up their policies, technologies and available capacity for remote working," he said. "[Virtual desktops] and remote desktops are front and center when it comes to enabling remote work, and I expect vendors in this category are very busy right now."
According to Gartner vice president and analyst Mark Lockwood, the situation may drive desktop as a service, in particular, given its ability to provide capacity quickly.
Mark LockwoodVice president and analyst, Gartner
The struggle here is, in the case of a pandemic, what is likely going to happen ... is the CEO walks in and says, 'Send everyone home and make it work,'" he said, noting that IT professionals in such situations won't have time to expand on-premises capacity or distribute more laptops to workers.
Lockwood noted that the floodgates had not yet opened for DaaS, but, with a relatively easy startup and flexible capacity, it could end up the preferred option for handling large-scale work-from-home situations.
While DaaS can provide a quick workaround, it may not necessarily erase the problem. The nature of a pandemic, Lockwood said, means widespread telecommuting might place an exceptional strain on infrastructure.
"The strain that this is going to put on companies, because they're not prepared for this ... is exacerbated by the fact that this is not a regional natural disaster," he said. "If this was a flood, people would go home and work, but it's isolated. In a pandemic, everybody's going to have to go home to work."
The impact of huge swaths of people working from home on mobile and internet service providers might be big, Lockwood said. Such firms often oversell their capacities because not everyone on a street is online at the same time; it's unclear what will happen when they are.
Effects beyond major disruptions
Although organizations may adopt virtual desktops and other remote-work solutions to safeguard against significant disruption, such measures may provide employees with more options to complete their day-to-day work.
McMasters said his city implemented Citrix technologies like Workspace to ensure continuity, but it has found benefits in the employee-empowerment sphere as well. The city of Corona, he said, is now able to employ workers who cannot be at city hall from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
"For us, [the technology] opens up a workforce that we hadn't been able to utilize," he said. "They're incredibly smart people, but they've been tied down by physically being somewhere [else]."
Lockwood said the extent to which coronavirus affects a company's work-from-home philosophy will likely be determined by the length of the crisis.
"If this lasts four months, maybe yes," he said. "If it lasts four weeks [or] a week, maybe not."
In a recent report on how to prepare for a pandemic, Forrester's Hewitt and co-author Stephanie Balaouras noted the possibility of day-to-day change driven by technologies adopted to avoid disaster disruption.
"The byproduct of developing remote access and other virtual workplace technologies is that it enables employee productivity for other less serious, but perhaps more frequent, events like the common cold and severe storms," the report reads.