Relying on Remote IT During COVID-19

Nutanix CIO Wendy M. Pfeiffer explains how to prepare a global remote workforce and lessons learned while scaling operations during the 2020 coronavirus pandemic.

By Ken Kaplan

By Ken Kaplan April 28, 2020

While frontline heroes stepped in harm’s way to help millions of people in the fight against COVID-19, another group of professionals worked from home, hustling to keep their colleagues, coworkers, customers and partners connected to digital business operations. With an almost invisible magic touch, these IT managers helped many businesses adapt to a completely remote workforce. Those who were prepared didn’t miss a beat.

Except for road warrior sales, journalists, telemarketing positions and a few other roles, there were few remote work careers 10 years ago. This began to change with the proliferation of mobile technologies and video conferencing, which drove telecommuting – at least once a week – to grow by almost 400% in the past decade, according to research by GetApp, a business app and software discovery platform. But the biggest global shift to remote work came after the pandemic forced businesses to close offices and sent workers home, literally overnight.

“We’re being forced into the world’s largest work-from-home experiment and, so far, it hasn’t been easy for a lot of organizations to implement,” Saikat Chatterjee, senior director, advisory, at Gartner stated in a March 3, 2020 blog post. He pointed to a survey of HR leaders in the Asia/Pacific region which found that their biggest remote-staff challenges came from limited technology infrastructure and discomfort with new work processes. Other regions shared the same struggles.

The coronavirus pandemic tested the mettle of IT departments at universities, financial institutions, government agencies and global companies. Omaha Nebraska’s Creighton University used desktop-as-a-service to keep professors and students connected with distance learning. London-based JM Finn relied on its private cloud to stream high performance workstations to the homes of stock traders who never missed a beat. Telecom giant Vodafone relied on it’s hyperconverged infrastructure and public cloud to scale up virtual desktop technology that streamed business applications to its global workforce of approximately 50,000 employees.

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In each of those cases, IT teams worked remotely during the crisis, something Nutanix CIO Wendy M. Pfeiffer said is nothing new but nearly impossible without proper training and, more importantly, the right technologies. Known as The CIO Who Drinks Her Own Champagne, Pfeiffer has a track record of running companies on their own technologies. She has a knack for building a highly trained, diverse workforce, which allowed Nutanix to keep its global workforce of over 6,000 connected to work remotely.  

“I learned that I was passionate about helping companies take advantage of their own disruption,” Pfeiffer said. That’s exactly what she’s doing at Nutanix, a pioneer of hyperconverged infrastructure (HCI). Here she explains how her remote IT helped the enterprise cloud computing company, which closed its offices in early March, run on all cylinders during COVID-19.

How do you see data center automation, remote operations, and unmanned data centers evolving across the IT industry and at Nutanix in the foreseeable future?

Wendy M. Pfeiffer: About a year ago, Nutanix migrated three of our large-scale data centers from San Jose to remote locations in multiple states. Although the primary driver for this migration was a desire to modernize while saving the taxes we were spending by operating data centers in California, this migration also gave us an opportunity to begin to use our own product in the way in which it was intended to operate. We had lost our way, in some sense, as we built out our previous data centers. Although we had an operating system that allowed us to operate our corporate data centers like a single, extended private cloud, we had become distracted by the work of manufacturing and supporting our own hardware. Our California data centers had become hardware testing grounds, and we were scaling out individual clusters and instances of hardware without taking advantage of the overall capacity that our operating system gave us. With the move to remote data centers, our employees could no longer take the short drive to the data center and interact with systems. Instead, they’d need to access systems, even those used for hardware compatibility testing, remotely. We began the journey to remote operations by instrumenting our Phoenix, Arizona data center with a software-defined network at the core. Instead of having onsite network engineering personnel constantly configuring physical switches and routers, we now provision and destroy networks remotely. Although we have one or two people on call at each of our new data centers, they are rarely engaged and usually only help us with expansion activities when we need to provision new racks and deploy new blocks.  All other data center operations are handled remotely or autonomously. When we made the shift to working from home in March 2020, there was no interruption in our global data center services.

Are remote IT operations common nowadays or are some industries still getting up to speed?

Organizations that are required to have a global reach tend to accomplish this via remote data center operations. Whether maintaining the tradition of staffing colocation facilities at important points of presence or operating leased data centers near major operational centers, a majority of the Global 2000 companies engage in a significant percentage of remote IT operations. Most global companies also consume significant SaaS (software as a service) applications as part of their overall front- and back-office estate, and this extended application infrastructure has driven an operational model more suited for remote operations. 

How has your IT team handled business operations during the COVID-19 crisis? Fully remote or are some at the helm at your data centers?

Our global IT operations are fully remote. We already operate in a hybrid cloud mode, meaning we have significant operations in public cloud infrastructure provided by Amazon and Google.  In addition, our global data centers are minimally staffed with facility personnel and run, for the most part, with no “hands-on” intervention. Capacity is provisioned, secured and configured via code. Our entire infrastructure, both in our own data centers and in public clouds, is “software-defined” and therefore accessible from anywhere.

Why was the Nutanix IT team prepared whereas others you’ve seen or read about haven’t been able to rely on remote IT teams to keep businesses running?  

The hybrid cloud model that Nutanix’s operating system and hypervisor enable is uniquely suited for true scale-out hybrid cloud operations under most circumstances. Although we are tracking significant additional usage across all of our environments, we are able to scale usage and capabilities as needed, taking advantage of capacity where it is available. Because all of our infrastructure is “software-defined,” we can do this remotely. For example, we run two VDI (virtual desktop infrastructure) applications at Nutanix. We run a significant Citrix farm in one of our data centers that is provisioned to support approximately 2,500 remote sessions. However, as that capacity was stretched to the breaking point as more of our engineers began to work from home, instead of procuring and provisioning additional servers in our data centers, we provisioned additional VDI capacity in AWS to scale out our Nutanix Frame VDI farm. Today, we are running thousands of VDI sessions in both AWS utilizing Nutanix Frame and in our data centers utilizing Citrix running certified on Nutanix’ AHV hypervisor. This mixed mode is possible because both environments share the underlying foundation of our Nutanix Acropolis plus AHV hybrid OS. No physical hands-on provisioning was needed.

What have you learned about supporting a global remote workforce and IT team during the pandemic?

I am still learning many lessons about supporting a global remote workforce. One thing that has surprised me is how employee productivity seems to be impacted in recognizable waves. At first, as our entire workforce pivoted quickly to remote work, we noticed significant increased volumes on our networks and infrastructure. However, everything seemed to function smoothly: we had about 90% fewer trouble tickets! Then, after a couple of weeks, we entered what I now call the “death by a thousand cuts” stage, in which, it seemed every remote worker began to find small issues with performance, interaction design, integration and their own home environment that they wanted IT’s help to address. Our ticket volumes increased by 10X! We’re now in the third phase as a company, which seems to be the “trouble focusing” phase. But as this WFH (work from home) situation becomes less of a sprint and more of a marathon, I am trying to pay attention to the signals and ensure we’re prepared to meet and sustain the next wave.

Has this experience enlightened you or changed your view about remote IT teams? 

I’ve operated significant remote IT teams for a couple of decades now, so I can’t say that this has changed my viewpoint much. But I am so honestly proud of the flexibility, creativity and operational capabilities of my global team members under the most difficult of circumstances!   I’ll give special acknowledgment to our remote services teams in Serbia and India, who are dealing with significant ticket volumes and complex workloads while sheltering in place with their extended families. Knowing how much I struggle to maintain focus in my home environment, I am in awe of their ability to personally scale while also meeting the needs of their families during this difficult time. In the end, although the technology enables us to work from home, it’s our human spirit that enables us to thrive while doing so.

How might you apply these lessons in the near future?

I am continuing to focus my teams and I on building and extending our logical models of operation. The extent to which we optimize the logic is the extent to which we can securely scale, pivot and invent new business capabilities. We must think creatively about impactful interaction design, flawless integration, secure data mobility and alternate platform modalities.  And we must allow our machine learning tools to improve the quality and performance of these logical operations as part of a changing ecosystem. So far, it’s going well and I believe that, to the extent possible, the better we enable our employees to work productively at home, the better opportunity we give the world to get the upper hand on infections in this current COVID-19 crisis.

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Brian Carlson is a contributing writer. He is the Founder of RoC Consulting and was Editor-in-Chief of and EE Times. Follow him on Twitter @bcarlsonDM

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