By Alison Hubbard, Senior Director at Riverbed Technology

Screen Shot 2016-08-01 at 11.17.04 AMIn our age of powerful mobile devices and cloud computing that enable employees to work anytime, anywhere, you might think the critical role the Remote Office and Branch Office (ROBO) plays may be diminishing. But, in fact, just the opposite is true. The ROBO has never been more important.

Consider that factories, hospitals, naval ships, embassies, retail stores, and oil rigs are all examples of ROBOs, and you understand why they are not going away anytime soon. In fact, on average more than half of a company’s employees work in ROBO locations that also house more than half of the company’s business-critical information stores. It’s become impossible for companies with hundreds of remote sites to field skilled IT teams locally at all ROBO facilities. This inevitably leads to poor system performance, unreliable data backups, and system outages. Lose that data and the consequences can be devastating – from a crippling impact on a business’s bottom line, or putting lives at risk in the case of a hospital or military unit. The solution is not to purchase and install new equipment. Instead, do the opposite: remove all systems and information stores from all branch offices and create a “Zero Branch IT” model.

Implementing a “Software-Defined Edge” architecture that brings together virtualization, intelligent storage caching and WAN optimization into a single solution uniquely enables IT, at long last, to consolidate ROBO IT operations to central data centers. IT can then provision and deploy new branch services and entirely new branch sites as quickly as spinning up virtual machines in the data center. Removing physical servers, storage, data and backup from ROBO locations enhances security, reduces operational costs, ensures reliable data backups, and increases overall business productivity by providing all users with the high levels of systems and applications performance that they expect and demand, when they require it.

ROBOs are Business-Critical

When Riverbed conducted a study of roughly 300 senior IT professionals for its Datacenter and Branch Office Resiliency Survey Report, it found that a majority of respondents affirmed the continued, even increasing, importance of remote offices and sites. Among the most striking findings were the “Three 50s”:

  • Almost 50 percent of all employees work in remote sites
  • 50 percent of companies’ data is stored outside the datacenter
  • Branch offices represent roughly 50 percent of IT’s budget

These findings should come as little surprise when you consider that the average corporate data center serves 55 ROBO locations. This demands replacing the typical branch office IT infrastructure. Islands of distributed servers and storage deployed to meet local performance and reliability needs are insecure, costly, complex, and inefficient to manage.

Today, data is everywhere, always being generated, always needing to be at the tip of our fingers, required in an instant to get our jobs done, serve customers, close deals, collaborate with co-workers, generate revenue, maximize success. Most distributed IT options bring unacceptable data risk and heavy operational lift to the business in an effort to remain productive and agile with unforeseen changes in business or events. Distributed ROBO operations present other challenges brought on by distance, the lack of skilled IT workers at ROBO locations, and by the lack of standard IT systems and processes across remote sites. Cumulatively, these challenges come with a very high price tag: Enterprises spend an average of 50 percent of their IT budgets supporting ROBO IT.

Mere Hyperconvergence Can’t Help

The typical hyperconverged appliance was designed as a piece of data center equipment, meant to simplify and scale data center infrastructures. It converges servers, storage, virtualization and networking into the building blocks of one system that, theoretically, would be easier to maintain and service than a collection of individual point solutions. That seems fairly straight-forward, and may seem like a great idea for ROBOs, but it’s important to recognize that the challenges IT organizations need to address in a data center are quite different as enterprises become more distributed.

Consider that companies rarely staff ROBOs with trained IT personnel. This forces IT to perform monitoring, maintenance and troubleshooting remotely. But popular hyperconvergence appliances are not designed to be remotely managed en masse, do not address unreliable networks and mass amounts of data over distances, and converge storage locally and directly within themselves at the edge. This creates a number of data protection issues, and therefore, operational issues and cost to the business. Deploying new remote sites for a distributed organization is complex, expensive, and time-consuming. Every site requires dedicated hardware, software, licenses, and, quite often, at least one IT administrator.

The solution is not to invest more time and money in hardware and data at the ROBO. In fact, take just the opposite approach: create a Software-Defined Edge model that removes infrastructure and data from ROBOs, and at the same time, centralizes application delivery, new site provisioning, data storage and backup, recovery and all other IT operations to the main data center, or a flexible combination of the data center and the cloud.

Zero Branch IT

Implementing a “Zero Branch IT” model enables IT to significantly improve the user experience for all frontline workers, reduces the costs and complexities of managing such a highly distributed environment, and protects against today’s sophisticated security threats. IT manages everything inside a secure, centralized datacenter or in the cloud, and quickly delivers applications and data to users at ROBOs. The key benefits include:

  • Hardened security posture: 100 percent of data is secured in the data center, not sitting on a piece of hardware in a far-away ROBO location, out of your control, and without compromise to remote user productivity. All data is encrypted at-rest and in-motion for true end-to-end encryption.
  • Improved user productivity: Generate up to a 100x increase in remote application performance. Users will encounter far fewer instances of downtime due to system outages or poor performance. Ensuring information and system availability enables users to get their work done using any device they choose.
  • Ensure business continuity: 100x faster recovery times minimize the business damage done by outages. Perform backup and recovery operations in mere seconds instead of days or weeks.
  • Improved operational agility: IT can deploy new branch services and sites in under 15 minutes, and manage everything via the central dashboard. All heavy ROBO IT operations, such as provisioning new services and sites, and recovery of sites in the case of outages, take seconds or minutes instead of days, weeks, or longer. Remote backup headaches are completely eliminated because data no longer lives at the edge. The result is a more agile IT team that is better able to support the always changing needs of the business.

Modernize Edge IT

But consolidating infrastructure at the edge is just the first step. You also need to make the edges “stateless.” If you’re a storage professional, you know “state” means facing daily operational challenges to manage and protect data at the ROBO that’s vulnerable to loss and theft. A lost storage piece at the ROBO will require hours or even days to bring back online. And there’s no guarantee of success, particularly when resorting to older backups. Decoupling storage and compute, by moving data storage from the edges to the central data center creates stateless data stores without compromising user experience. And since data assets are now centralized, the state remains only within the data center, where IT staff is readily available at all times, and the highest levels of protection exist.

Today it’s important to software-define the edge. This enables IT professionals to have complete visibility and control over every single location in the business no matter where they are. IT decides which applications and services need to be available to workers at specific ROBOs and when to maintain their high productivity levels and business requirements that allow businesses to stay competitive and always focused on customer success.