The State of Illinois increased its remote work capacity to support more than 25,000 new remote workers in a matter of days thanks to digital technology solutions from Citrix and other leading suppliers
Abraham Lincoln said, “I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis.” In recent weeks, that statement has been put to the test in the State of Illinois, also known as the Land of Lincoln.
The state government’s IT team has been faced with rapidly transitioning an office-based workforce to remote work in the face of a global pandemic. “With COVID-19, the entire world is going through a culture shift at the same time,” says Ron Guerrier, Illinois CIO and Secretary of Innovation & Technology.
Until now, the state’s work model had front line employees serving constituents from a government office environment. That was expected to continue well into the future. For this reason, the state’s IT team had not emphasized developing enterprise-wide work-from-home strategies.
“Accelerating remote deployment for State of Illinois employees required the alignment and oversight of our agency’s foundational priorities -- Architecture, Service Management, Program Management, Data & Analytics and Information Security,” notes Guerrier. Each specific component of the strategy is outlined in the Illinois Department of Innovation and Technology (DOIT) Strategy document.
COVID-19 crisis-related remote work enablement actions also have been in lockstep with the guidance provided by Illinois Governor JB Pritzker. Governor Pritzker acknowledged the gravity of the COVID-19 situation in numerous briefings. “Each step we have been forced to take by this pandemic has made things more challenging for our residents,” he said at one daily news conference. "The cascading consequences of these steps weigh on me every minute of every day.” In another communication, Pritzker said state government has to reconsider how it operates. “That includes directing some employees to continue to come to the office, moving some to a work from home capacity and making other needed adjustments to work schedules.” Ultimately, the majority of state employees would transition to a work from home model.
Fortunately, the team had building blocks in place that would facilitate rapid conversion to a more remote worker-friendly environment; the state had long ago espoused a cloud-first IT mandate. “COVID-19 has placed a demand on IT environments that even cloud providers could not have anticipated,” Guerrier acknowledged. “We talk about elasticity with the cloud, but the reality is that elasticity is built on the idea that not everyone will need all of the resources at the same time. Coronavirus has challenged everything we know.
The Illinois IT team is mitigating magnitude issues
As incidences of COVID-19 exploded in just a matter of days, the magnitude of the looming business disruption became obvious to Guerrier and his team. COVID-19 and the government mandate for social distancing necessitated immediate remote capabilities at an unprecedented scale. Up to that point, the typical remote Citrix user base at the State of Illinois had approached 3000 employees. The environment had headroom for approximately 1500 more, bringing the total capacity to nearly 4500. The pandemic and the subsequent need for the bulk of the workforce to transition to working from home increased that exponentially. Conversely, the new normal would include as many as 30,000 employees working remotely.
“Historically, ours has not been a mobile workforce,” explains Jennifer Ricker, Illinois Acting Assistant Secretary of Innovation & Technology. “In normal circumstances, the only remote employees are caseworkers, road crews and their staff members who need to be outside the confines of a desk and an office.”
The IT team rallied resources and took quick action
The IT team first reached out to Citrix because it knew that it could not scale out fast enough on its existing Citrix Environment. To evaluate the work from home tools that were available to them, the IT team assessed not only Citrix, but also, its partners. They simultaneously accelerated the implementation cadence to days rather than weeks so that the workforce could be productive at home as quickly as possible.
As the IT team mobilized to design a solution that could be implemented immediately, its first action was to consider how many laptops it may be able to procure. Financial and supply chain constraints immediately proved to be roadblocks. It simply wasn’t a feasible alternative to obtain and distribute 50,000 laptops quickly enough.
Understanding the urgency of the situation, Citrix deployed a team of Citrix Consulting architects to provide immediate assistance. In this way, Citrix offered not only the technical solution, but also, the knowledge and experience necessary to implement the solution on a truncated timeline. Both Citrix Consulting and the Priority Plus engagement with Illinois have been instrumental in the initial implementation and in ongoing support efforts, as the environment continues to grow.
Citrix ADC and Remote PC VDA enabled remote workers
Thanks to existing Citrix Remote PC technology, end users were able to securely access their in-office personal computers while staying safely at home. “Citrix Gateway is the proxy for the connection between the users and the backend,” explains Adam Ford, Illinois Chief Information Security Officer (CISO). “The Virtual Delivery Agent (VDA) allows the Windows desktop console to be remotely delivered to the end users’ devices,” he says.
Thanks to the VDA, the team has enabled remote workers to interact with their familiar personal computers and devices. This strategy enabled the largest possible user base to get up and running at home quickly. The reality was that workers’ personal desktops are already set up for their daily duties -- most already have the software that they need. Additionally, the employees are familiar with the layout of their own devices. The new access method also alleviated worries about interoperability – the kinds of issues that the IT team would expect to deal with if they had tried to re-platform all of the apps onto a Windows 10 virtual desktop image, for example.
A zero trust approach against unforeseeable challengers
In transitioning the IT environment to accommodate remote work, the IT team needed to ensure the security of sensitive data. Remote computers, including employee-owned computers, had to be able to access state resources, but there also needed to be security measures in place. “No file copying,” and “disabled printing” are examples. With this strategy, employees could do work from their home computers with less risk and without bringing unmanaged computers into the state’s network.
The new environment is a facilitation of the zero trust strategy that was already in place in the state’s IT environment. “We provide the workers with access specifically to the resources they're supposed to have – on their PCs. It's a kind of zero trust implementation against unforeseeable challengers,” Ford notes.
Training is a key part of the solution
In a very short time, the team already has imported nearly 30,000 virtual desktops, enabling nearly 25,000 to work remotely already. The number of Citrix concurrent users has already surpassed 8,000 and continues to grow.
Standing up the environment was only part of the challenge, though. Many state employees have never worked remotely. The IT team had to respond to the statewide stay-at-home mandate from Illinois Governor JB Pritzker, not only with the digital technology deployment, but also, with telephone resources and training modules to make the transition to remote work easier for novices. This, too, was a significant undertaking.
There are lessons learned and there is the possibility of repeatability
The team is particularly gratified that the initiative has been so successful that it can be deemed a potential blueprint for other similar projects in other states. Despite the fact that the environment evolved over a matter of days rather than over a period of months and multiple iterations, the basic steps and requirements are sound and repeatable.
From a national crisis comes a state of preparedness
In this latest deployment, the State of Illinois IT Team exceeded expectations. Together with Citrix as a close partner, they managed a multi-scope project in record time, including building a system, identifying support resources and constraints, distributing end user training, and collecting user data. This was a massive undertaking, the results of which materialized in a number of days.
“Thanks to Citrix and our entire team of suppliers, we enacted a twentyfold increase in accommodating remote workers,” notes Guerrier. “In addition, we were able to immediately support an urgent public safety directive from the Governor of Illinois.” What the team also did was to turn a national crisis into an opportunity to modernize and prepare its environment for the future.