Tech Trends

Working remotely due to the coronavirus? This technology from your employer is key

Key Points
  • Corporate virtual private networks — designed to be used by a subgroup of employees — will have to handle the strain caused by thousands of telecommuting employees if the coronavirus continues to spread.
  • Companies including Amazon have asked employees to check their VPN connections by logging in remotely.
  • These stress tests will reveal if the technology is up to the challenge of supporting a large remote workforce.
A woman wears a masks in Chinatown following the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, in Chicago, Illinois, U.S. January 30, 2020.
Kamil Krzaczynski | Reuters


Will corporate VPNs — virtual private networks — be able to handle the strain caused by thousands of telecommuting employees? We may be about to find out, as companies plan to have their workers stay home to avoid the spread of coronavirus.

VPNs, which protect information sent between employees and businesses, are secured web connections used by more than 400 million businesses and consumers worldwide, according to GlobalWebTKIndex. VPNs help companies encrypt data and scan devices for malware to prevent hacking threats. The global VPN market, which was valued at $15 billion in 2016, is set to grow from an estimated $20.6 billion in 2018 to nearly $36 billion in 2022, Orbis Research and Statista forecast.

On March 3, Bloomberg News reported that JPMorgan Chase had asked 10% of its approximately 127,000 employees to work from home, thereby allowing the company to test its plan for office closures. The next day, Yahoo Finance reported that Amazon had asked its employees to check their VPN connections by logging in remotely.

These tests will reveal whether existing corporate VPNs are up to the challenge of suddenly supporting a large remote workforce. Daryl Plummer, vice president, analyst and Gartner Fellow at the research and advisory firm Gartner, said that in some cases, VPNs could become overloaded from spikes in traffic.

 "Many companies use VPNs dependent on traffic over the public Internet, an unreliable transport which can develop problems as connections are made from different parts of the world," he said. "This translates into slowdowns and reduced quality of service overall."

 Matias Katz, CEO of the endpoint security company Byos, said that for the most part, VPNs are designed to be used by a subgroup of employees. They are not intended to be used by entire companies, all at once.

 "If Amazon's 750,000 employees all simultaneously connect to the corporate VPN, it will likely crash," he said.

The ultimate stress test

Josh Bohls, CEO of Inkscreen, which creates technology to protect sensitive content, said that smaller companies might experience their own growing pains as well if a sizable portion of their employees is required to telecommute. 

"VPN accounts are licensed, so a company adding chunks of users is going to experience a cost increase and time to set up and inform new users," he said. "You can bet that internet traffic will be much, much slower than usual."

Byos' Katz said that under certain circumstances, all productivity could come to a screeching halt.

"The most severe problem includes not being able to use the technology at all because it has been overloaded and crashed," he said.

Katz also said that there's another potential problem. VPNs encrypt data that's in transit from point A to point B, but they don't protect the remote employee's device, where the data itself lives. If a hacker accesses that device, the data can be used to access the employer's network and servers.

mapodile | E+ | Getty Images

"Working from home exposes the employee's devices and, through them, the company's network, to threats that exist on dirty public Wi-Fi networks," Katz said. "Some of the many device threats that VPNs can't protect against are eavesdropping, exploits and lateral spreading of attackers and malware."

According to Tech Radar, the best VPNs are those that offer users the most "speed, privacy and unblocking" of websites. The publication gave ExpressVPN its highest endorsement for these attributes. 

A VPN isn't the only technology whose abilities are about to be put to the test. Teleconferencing software, which will have to stand in for traditional face-to-face meetings, will get a workout that may put more strain on it than it can bear. Gartner's Plummer said that this tech could also be stress-tested, provided those doing the testing know what to look for.

"The difficulty in pinning something like this down is in determining where the bottlenecks will be in the network usage," he said. "Is it the VPN, or servers, or the transport between servers that will be affected most?"

It remains to be seen if large corporations will be able to handle the demands of a telecommuting workforce. However, entities such as governments, schools, health-care organizations and nonprofits have at least one company on their side in this situation. LogMeIn, which creates remote work products, announced on Feb. 28 that it would provide their technology to these entities free of charge in response to the coronavirus.

The private sector, meanwhile, will have to get with the program on its own, according to Plummer.

"Companies that have not prepared for this [will be forced] to upgrade equipment to relieve the stress," he said. But while he conceded that many companies would have some work to do to bring their technology up to speed, he said there was no reason to fear the type of doomsday scenarios that some harbored before Y2K. 

"Performance-based crises have come and gone over the years, with mostly temporary impact," he said. "For decades people have predicted the internet would crash, or that remote work — from 9/11 to N1H1 to Ebola — would cause so much stress as to make remote work too hard to do. And yet none of this has come to pass."

Representatives for JPMorgan Chase declined to comment for this article. Representatives for Amazon did not respond to requests for comment.