This story first appeared in CompTIA World magazine, Issue 8.
When the schools in Fairbanks, Alaska, closed last March because of the COVID-19 pandemic, nearly 1,000 students were left without access to home internet or even a tablet to check in with teachers. A local internet provider tried to help by offering free internet for educational use, but the idea was so popular it hogged the region’s bandwidth and slowed everyone down for days. The school’s help desk was flooded with calls as parents contacted the school with questions about laptops and sign-on protocols while its small IT staff flexed to accommodate connectivity, security and hardware—all at once.
Similar scenarios were playing out in thousands of school districts and by millions more students globally. Businesses, schools, organizations—everyone—simply weren’t prepared to deal with the massive shift to remote environments due to coronavirus.
“There is definitely a capacity problem when you take a help desk that size and attempt to support such a large population and variety of personal equipment,” said Mariah Sexton, a CompTIA-certified IT pro and IT systems support specialist with the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District.
The situation thrust the global network of tech vendors, distributors, solution providers, managed service providers and other tech-focused organizations into the spotlight. In Fairbanks, the school district hired a group of technology pros to help. “They passed out laptops and tablets and people mapped Wi-Fi hotspots so people could sit in their cars to access the internet,” said Sexton. “It was a spectacular community effort.”
All around the world, MSPs jumped into action to help keep businesses, students and customers connected and secure. In Florida, where they’re more accustomed to preparing for hurricanes than global pandemics, Michael Goldstein’s team at LAN Infotech moved its clients to remote offices and immediately started seeing holes in the system.
“Usually, we’ll have time to react,” said Goldstein. “Here, there was no time. Some people had minimal internet; some people had bad equipment. We realized what we’re up against: The majority of our customers weren’t mobile.”
Technology to the Rescue
In the spring of 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic forced entire industries into at-home work and students into distance learning, technology became a super connector, temporarily replacing face-to-face and in-person interaction as a primary means of communication.
“It’s going from 100 people in an office to 100 people in 100 different locations, and that requires a different level of care and monitoring,” said Carolyn April, CompTIA’s senior director of industry analysis.
A global challenge no doubt, but tech innovation and adoption over the last several years helped provide a foundation that could be built on. “We’re definitely at a much better place than we were even 10 years ago,” said Seth Robinson, CompTIA’s senior director of technology analysis.
Companies have been in a years-long process of digitizing their business processes and nominally supporting remote work. Overnight, they had to step it up when COVID-19 hit. Robinson credits two technology trends for the ease of the superfast transition: smart phone penetration and migration to the cloud. As smartphone penetration increased, people grew familiar with doing work activities outside the office.
“In 2010, people were in early stages of adoption and probably experimenting but we definitely did not have nearly as many systems in the cloud to just send someone home. Most of the systems they need are available through the internet and I think that’s a huge change,” Robinson said.
Only five years ago, basic packages from ISPs became good enough that people could smoothly and securely work from home. “That was right on the edge of where things started to change. It wasn’t so much about actual bandwidth available but more about the number of people who were choosing to get decent bandwidth,” Robinson said. “In 2010, we had smartphones but the penetration was much lower.”
Jay Tipton, CEO of Technology Specialists, a Fort Wayne, Indiana, solution provider, said COVID-19 has accelerated some networking and collaboration projects that customers had either planned for later in the year or had on the backburner.
“We’ve had clients who had been adamant about employees never working from home. Now half their workforce is working from home,” Tipton said. “We had to set up remote controls, VPNs, and set up employees so they could make phone calls from their systems. It was a lot of moving parts for a while.”
Now those same customers are talking about keeping some workers remote permanently. “It forced them to change,” he added.
Technology Specialists is running multiple collaboration tools and the pandemic has forced other companies to do the same. “Even if some companies aren’t setting up their own meetings, they need the tools for meetings set up by their vendors or other businesses. Some of the deployments are permanent, some are planning to bring all their folks back to the office and I’ll be shutting off their remote access.”
Fast Track Digitization of Main Street
The work-from-home transition involves a lot of little details, like how to make calls from home and how to get enough headsets so people aren’t shouting into their laptops all day.
ShowTech Solutions requires its customers to have a certain firewall in place so IT pros like Charles Love, director of professional services for ShowTech, can have VPN access when disaster strikes. When COVID-19 hit, the infrastructure was in place for a rapid transfer. “I didn’t have to go swap gear to make it work, so for us it wasn’t too terrible, but you do run into things you didn’t think you’d ever run into,” said Love.
A few people brought home thin clients, the hardware designed to work inside the building and nowhere else. Somebody tried to bring home their desk phone—the one that runs on network power—and a memorable call came in from a woman arguing about her internet connection, insisting she didn’t need to have an internet connection at home. “She said, ‘I brought the laptop home because the laptop has Wi-Fi,’” Love recalled. “That’s a conversation we may not have needed to have before.”
In some industries, the 2020 pandemic paved the way for new processes, eliminating the need for in-person contact. Restaurants and even fast food joints moved to online ordering and delivery, insurance started covering online healthcare appointments and every activity that could shifted to online communication almost overnight. Even government businesses shifted quickly into work-from-home mode. “Governments are always looking for ways to serve better in lower-cost models. There has been a decent amount of innovative exploration even while they have taken a measured approach to full-scale upgrades of existing systems,” Robinson said.
Like many companies, ShowTech has benefited from the work-from-home model, Love said. “Instead of a site visit, engineers can now use an app to virtually fix any phone from the office, shaving off travel time and expensive engineering hours. “We’ve had some killer migrations,” said Love. Two-hour jobs have been cut to 25 minutes because fewer distractions means faster work. He’s also gotten to the backlog of things he’s wanted to do, like documenting processes for customers to make them more efficient. “I’m happier with how the business looks now compared to pre-COVID-19. We’ve dialed in so many things.”
A Proliferation of Security Concerns
The move to at-home work and education came with an increased need for cybersecurity training and heightened security threats. Love said he’s held his tongue with some customers who originally opted out of IT security services and now feel attacked.
“We’ve had a couple of issues with customers upset and we say, ‘Remember the filtering and URL checking you didn’t want to pay for? This is what happens,’” Love said. Working from home has people out of their elements, and even people with proper cybersecurity training can make a mistake. “People aren’t looking as carefully when they’re in the mode of working; they’re clicking links, not even paying attention.”
Like many MSPs, Love and Goldstein’s companies are offering free security tips and work-from-home advice for schools, nonprofits, their clients and anyone who wants to stay secure online.
“We want to help the community,” said Goldstein. He’s seen firsthand the way hackers target vulnerable people. When his father-in-law passed away during Florida’s shelter-in-place order, Goldstein lent a hand as an IT pro to help the rabbi with tech support. Together they telecast his father in law’s funeral, since the travel ban made it impossible for most of the family to attend. In return for his hard work, hackers hit Goldstein with phishing emails trying to steal his identity in the middle of his grief.
“All of a sudden a Gmail account is emailing me with my father-in-law’s name,” Goldstein said. “Bad guys don’t care what’s going on, they’re looking to cash in.”
Beyond the Pandemic: The Future for MSPs
MSPs work behind the scenes until a problem occurs, said April, who authored CompTIA’s Trends in Managed Services report. “In crisis time, you become incredibly visible. This can solidify your value to the customer,” she said.
April predicts MSPs will move more into cloud, specialization and compliance—premium services that add value. The pandemic also has changed the way health insurance companies cover telehealth appointments, opening new opportunities for IT security pros. “I could see that as being a whole discipline for an MSP,” April said. “Doctors are going to need outside providers to help them set up, especially for small doctors’ offices.”
Post-pandemic, Goldstein foresees a more virtual world, one where brick and mortar all but disappears and companies shift everything to the cloud. That means a big investment to build out networking and VPN capability across the board, April said.
“Some companies may not have been set up to be a VPN before and now they need to do that for every single person working from home,” April said. “I think security is the biggest issue based on my report. MSPs should all do security, including table stakes such as firewall, AV, etc. But there is a segment that is going to completely specialize on security.”
MSPs will reap rewards by listening to clients and helping them through these chaotic times by pivoting operations to remote environments or even reimagining their business models.
“It really depends on the health of your customer when things resume normally, whether or not you’re going to be able to upsell them on some of those higher-level services,” April said. “People may throttle back to just basic for a while, we’ll see what happens toward the end of the year. I expect things to return to business as usual. I have a lot of optimism in that regard.”