Remote working at Simwood – free stuff!

 

By Simon Woodhead

Spoiler: There’s some free stuff in here we hope will help you!

As mentioned in our latest COVID-19 update, we’re now working fully remotely. We’re lucky as not only are we in an industry that can, we’re in the industry that enables that.

Notwithstanding the offer we made in that update to help wherever we could, we wanted to share some of the things we do in the hope it’ll help others. In some cases these are what we’ve always done, in others we’ve had to rethink to handle the least technical people in the business being self-sufficient and remote.

We’ve omitted the obvious from the below. It is no surprise we use Google Apps or Slack and talking about them would add no value. But let’s look at other things.

WireGuard VPN

I love WireGuard so much it warrants a blog post of its own. I use it at home and it is the only VPN that is pretty much set and forget on mobile devices, largely because it is stateless. Think Mosh for VPNs – it’ll move between networks or cell towers without visibly re-negotiating. It is also super-efficient.

Installing WireGuard is well documented but managing it for an office full of people is less easy. Thankfully there is an open-source management tool called SubSpace (don’t google that!) which makes this trivial.

Trouble is SubSpace doesn’t appear to be maintained, hard-codes to CloudFlare’s DNS (I don’t like them), has a 10 user limit, and mandates the use of Let’s Encrypt via an out of date library. So getting it working is non-trivial.

I’m delighted to say though that we’ve open-sourced our changes to enable this so feel free to make use of it. You can find it in our GitHub repo.

Chromebooks

I’m not a fan of Google from a privacy perspective as many will know, but we use GSuite within Simwood and ideals are unlikely to change that soon. Faced with the prospect of the entire company working from home, we were concerned at the maintenance overhead (now and in the future) of our least technical people having laptops.

We opted for high-end Chromebooks instead with the addition of the Enterprise upgrade. For a trivial amount per year, this enables devices to be ‘enrolled’ and then centrally managed as part of GSuite. By ‘managed’ we mean managed. Users log in with the GSuite login and get a curated set of pre-installed apps, a curated list of optional apps in the Play Store and a curated set of Chrome extensions.

Combined with other tools we use such as the teams edition of 1Password, this is supremely powerful.

If a device is lost it can be remotely wiped, and no data is lost because nothing is kept locally. We can even see the temperature of the CPUs such is the level of management reporting! They take a minute or two max to set-up and self-update!

We’ve had some challenges with some workflows, especially porting, where the file format (a very old Excel format) is inflexible, but we’ve overcome them. Despite the small screen, people have been working very well remotely.

Communicator

We eat our own dog food and run using Nimvelo for our phone system. Nimvelo is the direct-to-market variant of Simwood Partner.

One feature of Nimvelo is a WebRTC based ‘Communicator’ so our existing office based extensions become completely mobile as a softphone. And yes, it works beautifully on Chromebooks.

We also have the alpha version of the Communicator App mentioned at SimCon which is working very well. Public beta coming very soon but give us a shout if you need it.

Video

Being remote means more remote meetings. We use Zoom extensively but it has its limits. One limit is that our very expensive ‘meeting room’ accounts can only be used by one meeting at a time. Lots more remote meetings mean running out of licenses. Questions have been asked about its security too.

Open source saves the day here and we’ve long been fans of Jitsi Meet. We sponsored enhancements to it in the past such as the ability to connect it to SIP.

So we have spun up an instance at https://meet.simwood.com

We will be using this ourselves and you are welcome to. Don’t consider this a product or expect support but if it helps you or your customers out during this time we’ll be really happy!

Mobile

Over the coming period we’re going to test the capacity of mobile networks by having huge swathes of the population working remotely. Let’s face it, most businesses will default to mobile rather than ‘doing the job properly’ with a hosted PBX solution that works in or out of the office. We’ve seen signs today of this not going as smoothly as it could.

Simwood supports mobile porting and also offers mobile numbering. In both cases the calls are delivered to SIP so you can use, for example, an on-call phone number to route to multiple engineers or script changes using our API, without a SIM card in sight!

For a couple of years now I’ve had my mobile number ported to Simwood with calls delivered to VoxAP. It also receives my SMS delivered to a webhook.

This means to a large extent I’m uninterrupted by issues on the radio side of the mobile networks as I can use one or many ‘burner’ devices or WiFi.

Performance

We’re blessed with a great team who I trust to get the job done even when remote. But what if they don’t?

Well of course our helpdesk has stats but one thing we immediately noticed when some of the normally-office-based team went remote, was the complete lack of awareness of how busy things were.

Apparently Simwood Wholesale and Simwood Partner teams have been really busy with calls today as our customers are on-boarding new people. But how would we know?

Thankfully, one of the strengths of the Sipcentric stack which powers Simwood Partner and Nimvelo, is the reporting and wall board capability.

So even though we’re all remote from the office, we can ensure customers are being looked after. In other organisations this could also ensure nobody is bunking off!

Before anyone looks too closely here. The apparent slacker in the above is our Bristol office doorbell which for some reason has been quite quiet!

There’s loads more analysis here but that isn’t what this post is about!

Closing

I hope some of this is useful but re-iterate our offer that we want to help where we can. If we have a resource someone needs such as backhaul, transit or additional capacity, please just ask. Free of course, and those are just examples; we give free trials to our more mainstream products anyway which can get people by.

The coming weeks (or I think the coming year) are going to test us as a people and are certainly going to hammer our economy. It takes a particular kind of douche-bag to seek to profiteer in that environment but they’re out there. We know most of our customers are different and we ourselves want to help peers and customers.

We look forward to our community doing the right thing and enabling what I believe will be a seismic long-term shift in society.

Stay safe!