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Planning and preparation beats the pandemic

Aug. 20, 2021
System integrator Panacea Technologies expands on digitalized infrastructure already in place to let staff work remotely and complete client projects

There are many quotes about always being prepared, failing to plan, fortune favoring the prepared and making your own luck, but they're only useful if they produce genuine action. This has been especially true for remote-access technologies during COVID-19.

"When we saw the COVID-19 numbers creep up, we thought it was going to be serious. Fortunately, we already had a hybrid cloud that we could quickly expand, so everyone could work 100% remotely," says Will Aja, customer operations VP at Panacea Technologies Inc., a CSIA-member system integrator in Montgomeryville, Pa. "Our hybrid cloud begins with a large, local, virtual infrastructure, and then runs some systems on a commercial cloud service. This lets us work on hundreds of different projects, and even simulate entire manufacturing processes remotely. We also beefed up our network with added monitoring, redundancy and resilience, and implemented added access controls, more backup data storage, and security against attack vectors."

Because it was concerned about a worst-case scenario in which COVID-19 would continue for two years, Aja reports that Panacea took its existing roadmap for planned upgrades and modernizations, and performed them all by mid-February 2020. "Our state, Pennsylvania, shut down and sent everyone home pretty quickly when the pandemic ramped up, so we also developed guidelines for working at home, distributed them, and relied on our internal productivity tools. Most of our projects were considered essential, so we had to adapt when many of us couldn't leave the house," explains Aja. "We switched from people working at our office within the umbrella of its safety and security protection to working at home with a lot more external connections via a token-based virtual private network (VPN), so we implemented a more robust VPN with Microsoft Active Directory sign-ons."

Because it works mostly in the life sciences, which typically employ many standard operating procedures (SOP), Panacea's guidelines for working at home and onsite were similar to these SOPs. It also developed a COVID-19 responses whitepaper for clients.

"We also had SOPs for sanitizing onsite cubicles, reducing surface contacts, and following occupancy limits for offices," adds Aja. "It wasn't easy. Plus, it was weird to hire people who couldn't be onsite. System integrators and our projects depend on direct transfers of knowledge and ideas, which was difficult to accomplish with so many people working at home. We tried to replicate it with Zoom and Microsoft Teams, but we couldn't really do the same brainstorming and unbridled conversations with teleconferencing. Just like everyone, we had some teleconferencing burnout and low morale from working at home, which made it hard to maintain a good work/life balance. Nonetheless, we were still able to serve our clients and get projects done, including some that contributed to the COVID-19 vaccine efforts. We were glad that we planned for the worst, and expanded our networking and capabilities because it was gratifying to help with those lifesaving projects."

More recently, Aja adds that some of Panacea's managers and staff returned to their offices last fall, and have continued to hold online, virtual staff meetings to keep everyone updated, and monitor projects and other issues. It also initiated a soft-start program for new personnel in June 2020, but had to stop it when COVID-19 infection rates spiked again. "We worked hard to get everyone vaccinated, and once we did, it got easier to get more people back in by March 2021. Now, we're doing phased returns with people coming in one or two days per week, and we plan to add more soon."

Panacea's Aja reports that mobility in the form of tablet PCs and smart phones is one of the primary symptoms of a well thought out remote-access strategy and platform. "Unfortunately, at the beginning of the pandemic, some clients that didn't previously allow mobile devices like tablet PCs and smart phones had to scramble to set up and integrate servers, networks and interfaces, especially for staff designing, coding and troubleshooting from home," says Aja. "If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it's that technical changes like digitalization are going to happen regardless of whether we want them to or not—so whether we're on the boat or not, we still have to traverse the water. This means asking what we'll need five to 10 years from now. My wife and I didn’t just buy a house for ourselves; we shopped based on the kids and pets we’re likely to have. Likewise, if we just plan for what we need right now, it won't be enough because when we're done, it will already be time to upgrade again. 

"Planning and preparation must be based on likely demand and industry trends, including both what we believe and where our industry is really going, which is why we need trusted partners and advisors. For example, the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) was initially about collecting all available data, until users realized they were collecting far more than they could use. This is why they began to focus on actionable data, and better ways of collecting it, such as using unified namespace software for centralized storage and distribution. This kind of prioritizing is the type of conversation users need to have about what their processes and businesses need in coming years."

Aja adds that another possible silver lining from COVID-19 is that it showed users and business that they're more capable than they realized. "What amazes me is that the pandemic showed the bleeding edge isn't just a theory. It pushed us, and showed that more is possible than we thought," says Aja. "It showed clients that didn't think they needed remote access and mobility that they could implement it in two weeks when they had to. We talked about doing full-scale cloud deployments with clients for years, but only a few did it. Now, some type of cloud platform is planned for in most projects."

About the author: Jim Montague
About the Author

Jim Montague | Executive Editor

Jim Montague is executive editor of Control. 

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