As one of the world’s largest semiconductor chip makers, Intel’s manufacturing operations are the backbone of the global supply chains providing equipment and solutions to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, and keeping people and companies working productively in demanding circumstances. Our technology enables our customers to provide vital services, tools and infrastructure to millions of people who are directly struggling with this virus, those who are caring for them, or are working to help ensure the safety of others.
Intel, like many organizations, has had a remote work capability in place for many years. However, the COVID-19 pandemic propelled us overnight into a scenario that has more than 100,000 employees working remotely, along with our contingent workers and ecosystem partners. This unfolded with such extraordinary rapidity that it required all of us to radically change our approach.
To successfully pivot our workforce while maintaining business operations, we had to make numerous changes across manufacturing, supply chain, sales and marketing, human resources and finance. For example, our manufacturing processes are highly automated, and the key to keeping the factories running was to equip our technicians and engineers with remote operations capabilities that would enable continuous factory operations and access to equipment for installations and troubleshooting. Our sales and marketing people had to shift to working with our customers and industry partners through virtual engagements and events. To provide a seamless and consistent experience, we had to fine-tune multiple platforms to both enable and accelerate collaboration.
Just being prepared wasn’t enough
Intel’s leadership team remains focused on two priorities – the health and safety of our employees and supporting our customers by keeping our business operating as normally as we can. Intel created a Pandemic Leadership Team (PLT) after the SARS outbreak of 2002-2003. The PLT drives much of the coordination across the company and has deep functional expertise in health and business operations. Furthermore, every Intel organization must have a robust business continuity plan (BCP). For Intel IT, that meant we were already prepared to have about half of Intel’s employees work remotely at any one time. Intel’s workforce has been highly mobile and using mobile PCs for many years. Employees are accustomed to working with a broad set of communication and collaboration technologies that help them work effectively and productively even away from the office. Further, Intel’s virtual private network (VPN) is automatically load balanced so that, if user numbers exceed capacity, users are seamlessly rolled over to an alternate VPN. While all this preparation laid the foundation for this unexpected work-from-home scenario, the traditional methods of building out the infrastructure moved too slowly for the current crisis. Intel IT had to quickly embrace creative solutions that would enable scaling rapidly.
Changing our mindset to prepare for an IT worst-case scenario
It quickly became apparent that, despite our planning, we would not be able to maintain VPN performance with the anticipated demand. This was no longer about supporting a certain percentage of remote employees for a relatively short period of time; we had to ramp up our efforts to overcome an IT worst-case scenario. We would have to push beyond our comfort zone to build capacity rapidly, even with concerns and imperfect solutions; then we could work in phases toward more permanent solutions. Our response had to match the pandemic’s pace. This required our teams across audio and video engineering, data collaboration, security and privacy, network, server, storage, operations and virtualization to work together and accelerate our response.
Our traditional approach would’ve been to add more capacity on-prem, requiring anywhere from two weeks to three months. Instead we moved some of the most-bandwidth-intensive workloads, such as audio and video conferencing, to the cloud. This step wasn’t as big as it might seem because Intel IT’s multi-cloud strategy addresses business needs while maintaining security, and it supports anything-as-a-service (XaaS) capabilities. Using our multi-cloud strategy, we quickly scaled up our use of as-a-service offerings so that employees could easily access tools and capabilities that did not require VPN. We took advantage of existing cloud service provider relationships, collaborating to prioritize what was needed to accommodate further workload transitions to the cloud.
Despite our robust business continuity planning and cloud-readiness, it was a massive task. We had to double Intel’s VPN capacity over a single weekend and continue to simultaneously accelerate on-premises support. But by Monday morning, Intel employees around the globe were productively working from home.
Modifying processes to accelerate our response
We had to quickly adapt our formal processes to accelerate our response. Adhering to typical processes at the onset could have resulted in thousands of employees being unable to do their jobs. We made exceptions to our procurement processes, modified on-boarding/off-boarding processes allowing employees to be virtual, accelerated laptop delivery through temporary repurposing of devices from our refresh program, and added new capabilities to support remote working for greater collaboration.
What’s next for IT?
The keys to our initial success have been quick action and a willingness to deviate from the traditional mindset. We had to look at problems differently, engage in collaborative internal debate and make fast decisions that involved some unavoidable compromises. Our old BCP has become our “new normal.” So, what does an updated BCP look like, should another catastrophic event occur on top of the pandemic?
We know we have the ability to burst or scale using cloud solutions when necessary, to give us the time to build additional physical infrastructure. In the first two weeks of supporting a remote workforce, we have been able to build out full redundancy to the new capacity we added. We can now begin to pull some as-a-service workloads back from the cloud to optimize our costs and solutions while still leveraging this bursting capability for any future needs.
The fight with COVID-19 is far from over. We stand ready to work with citizens and governments around the world to overcome this challenge. But things may never be quite the same as they were before. The pandemic may be the tipping point for demonstrating the success and benefits of remote work at scale. We may see new disruptive business models and technologies that have the potential to reinvent the way we work. For many of us, it will also highlight where we are in our digital transformation journeys. After this is over, there will be a point of reflection where most companies will put greater impetus on accelerating their digital transformation strategies to help with unanticipated future events.