Work From Anywhere Support: The Story of Our IT & Support Work-From-Home Transition

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During the pandemic, most companies quickly adapted and moved to a work-from-home model, as a sudden necessity of the lockdown restrictions introduced by efforts to combat the spread of COVID-19.

For most workers, this was a new way of thinking. But for others, more specifically, in IT and Support departments, this was more than an expansion of their existing arrangements.

From an IT and Support perspective, what makes working from home more challenging than working from the office?

Hey there! Can you help me with this issue?

In some countries, employees are returning to their offices, even if only part-time. But office life, as we knew it, has changed dramatically.

For a corporate IT team, the list of work-from-home challenges is long. It includes the shutdown of IT logistics, the primary support location, internal client connectivity, protection, and more.

For many companies, the office serves as a mini-hub for IT logistics. If something doesn’t work with your computer set-up, you can call up an internal IT expert, and they will help you out, whether it’s a software upgrade, new cable, or broken hardware.

The center of IT services isn’t just around the corner from your desk anymore, waiting for you to ask for help.

We now have to bring logistics to the employees. Delivery services provide an alternative for the need to visit the office, although a cost is attached.

Yet, the most significant change is the barrier to receiving personal support. Many larger support organizations have remote desktop support or call centers.

For many smaller IT shops, this isn’t the case. You can’t just drop by when you have an issue. You can’t just ask someone at an adjacent desk to open a ticket for you.

Does your home need an IT upgrade?

Your home IT infrastructure might not meet the minimum requirements needed to operate effectively and securely. Anything from home WiFi coverage, ISP speeds, ISP performance issues, and VPN connectivity problems (for the few resources that still require VPN access) can be deficient.

There is no corporate-level support for home networks, and now there are more users on your home network, such as children in remote schools or spouses and partners also working from home, both eating up bandwidth.

From the perspective of the IT department, the single, reliable corporate network suddenly became hundreds of home networks. Multiple home networks are now part of the company IT realm from a single network under close IT control and support.

From the perspective of the IT department, the single, reliable corporate network suddenly became hundreds of home networks. From a single network under close IT control and support, multiple home networks are now part of the company IT realm.

Every home network issue becomes a productivity issue. Multiple users with the same problem might become a shared ISP problem or an extremely chatty application consuming too much bandwidth or causing a DNS issue. The list goes on.

Because of this shift to home offices, there are many new problems to consider and address.

We found our “why”

The ability to help direct our employees and improve their work experience is part of what we do in IT.

Our goal isn’t to manage corporate networks, but to provide business enablement, empowering our employees to do their work effectively. This is why we come to work, and this is what the business needs from us.

Enabling the team to focus on improving the day-to-day work and productivity of the organization was a project everyone enjoyed working on.

We decided to build our own “Home-IT” proactive monitoring system. This needed to be a light and agile solution that would provide our IT team and employees with clear visibility of their working environment.

Improving the user experience with data

How can we improve our users’ experience in this new, sometimes chaotic environment?

Of course, being IT geeks, our IT and Support Taboolars first looked for data, statistics, and observability to help solve our problems. Being data-driven is what allows us to learn and improve daily at Taboola.

We looked for a way to bring in data from every laptop and device connected to our applications and systems. From that data, we would try to find patterns and help support users in a meaningful way by proactively identifying and resolving individual user issues alongside regional or home network-related problems.

When reviewing months of “work from home” support tickets, we discovered which statistics would be the most useful:

  • OS statistics (CPU, memory, disk capacity, running apps, versions, uptime)
  • Network data (connection type, signal strength, DNS, and ISP)
  • Network statistics (packet loss and RTT to multiple targets – over VPN, fixed points, and 2nd hop)

This data could help us provide users with quick answers to many of the questions regarding the state of their connection and the problems they may be facing — anything from a weak WiFi signal to a saturated home Internet uplink.

The project

The solution we set out to build had to solve the issues in our new working environment. Also, we wanted to use what we already had to avoid deploying new tools.

To that end, we defined the following:

  • The solution should support both Windows and Mac workstations.
  • No new agents should be added to the OS.
  • No installations of any tools into the working environment.
  • VPN should not be a factor when collecting the data.
  • There should be a minimal impact to users’ devices.

To our benefit, we did have the advantage of a managed OS environment. All our workstations are centrally managed and have some agents on them already, so anything we did had the ability to use our central management system.

Solving the data collection challenge

Following a brainstorming session, we found that creating a local script using only the existing OS tools could actually work.

The data was readily available with command-line tools, which was the “easy part.” Checking for connectivity, CPU levels, OS version, or IP information would be no problem! Checking the packet loss statistics for the second router up the chain, again, no problem; there is also a tool for that.

The main issue was the data collection. How do we bring in all the data in a secure fashion yet avoid the use of VPN?

Our choice was to upload the files to a cloud repository. We decided to use the cloud as a go-between and provide the end-user with a destination unique to that user’s machine for convenience.

Creating a write-only key that doesn’t have read permissions was part of the security design. If the user can only write and never read, no data will be exposed even if the key is lost before the next rotation.

On the local drive, we keep only a limited size log and manage the log rotation (as we didn’t use any log tool, but a script, that logic needed to be taken into account as well).

How did this help us? (and how can it help you, too!)

We did this project with the belief that it would make a difference. Little did we know how much of a difference that would be.

Now, when a user calls in for support, we already have lots of baseline and historical data about the user’s environment. This data is well beyond the local OS and crosses into the working environment of the user.

Packet loss on the local network? Weak WiFi signal? VPN connected with no DNS update? All of this is, and more, now available in data that we can easily access.

Support calls have reached an exponentially faster resolution due to the data being already available for the support engineer to read. For the more technical users that want to check on their own, there is now a local log of multiple potential issues they can see.

The impact on the user’s support experience is profound. There is no longer a need to open a ticket and provide a call back with “check this/do that.”

The calls now start from an insightful point, and we already see the time to resolution of support cases shorten. We are also seeing the comprehension of the support reaching deeper into the user’s work environment.

A note on privacy

We take user privacy very seriously and collect only operational data that can help solve problems. The data collected is limited to system monitoring data, the same data normally collected from servers (on-prem or in the cloud). The data collected from the laptops is hardware and operational related, with no user actions being collected in any way.

Conclusion

Although we were suddenly plunged into a challenging situation with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Taboola IT team was able to rise to that challenge.

Supporting both staff in the office and at home during different phases of the virus outbreak meant that we needed to quickly develop tools to help us diagnose problems across our new universe of multiple home-based networks and hardware.

By working together, leveraging the power of the cloud, and using existing tools, we were able to smooth the path for better IT solutions for those at home and continue to support the business and our colleagues effectively.

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