Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The Wide Area Network Dilemma

I recently attended a trade show aimed at owners and operators of convenience stores. Dynamic speakers at the show inspired many attendees to ask lots of thoughtful questions. As I stood in our booth talking to these business owners a theme developed: "Should we network our stores? And if so, what is the best solution for our business?"

Wide Area Networks (WANs) can often be the technology investment that doubles your revenue. ---okay, maybe not double. But I've got your attention and a WAN is definitely a "bottom line" builder.

In fourteen years of network engineering I have orchestrated successful WAN implementations streamlining ordering, eliminating overtime expenses and reducing shrink. But does every business need a WAN? Answering six key questions ---Who, What, When, Where, Why and How (including How Much)--- is the start to finding out.

Who: Get support from all departments. Anyone who will be affected will need to be involved at some level. A WAN is a significant investment, and even if it will be used only for Point-of-Sale (POS) traffic the project will go much smoother if there is buy-in from the CEO on down. A new WAN will touch training, sales, inventory, purchasing, accounts receivable, accounts payable, IT, and everyone in between. It's better to bring them in than wish you had.

What: Choosing a hardware platform is an important decision. The wrong decision now may cost tens of thousands of dollars two years from now when you want to roll out VoIP and your hardware won't handle it. Open your eyes to the BIG picture and prepare for the future. I recommend to my clients that they should think out no more than five years. The infrastructure will be ready for a facelift at that time.

When: Just as critical as "Why". Time is a balancing act. Take as much time as you can to design and implement your WAN properly. Moving too quickly will leave holes that someone (probably you) will fall into. One of my clients had tried the DIY approach before contacting me for help. He implemented his 32 point WAN too quickly and the results were catastrophic. The stores didn't have enough bandwidth to work properly and the VPN tunnels were not properly secured. He spent the majority of his time just keeping the WAN running and was not able to keep up with his day-to-day work. But, as I wrote earlier, time is a balancing act. If you take too long precious momentum is lost and it becomes easy to overlook an element of the project, such as the IP addressing scheme. I have often said, "A WAN is a living, breathing creature and sometimes it has attitude"!

Where: This is an interesting part of the design decisions. Certainly each store will be part of the WAN but what about corporate HQ? Maybe now is the time to co-locate your data-center in a secure, professional facility? You may benefit from inviting a choice vendor or two into the WAN (called an ExtraNet). If you have retail stores you may want to be connected to your credit card processor for faster (and potentially less expensive) transactions. The same is true for gift card processors, VoIP providers, etc.

Why: There are so many reasons. The one I hear most often is, "We want to get access to the POS data for each of our stores." or, "We want to start using e-mail". Other reasons may include to reviewing inventory levels, implementing a new enterprise application, providing online training to store staff, monitoring video surveillance, or adding VoIP. It is critical to explore all of the reasons well in advance. Identifying as many desired components at the front end will maximize benefits and ROI. When the time comes to design the network, each application will have its own network requirements.

How (or How Much): WANs come in different colors and flavors. Private, hosted, VPN, software based, hardware based, broadband, layer 2, and layer 3 are just a few options available. To break it down more simply consider these three options:

1. Private, Managed: This option eliminates the need to hire Remote Access Specialists or highly trained (and expensive) engineers who have experience with WAN technology. A private, managed service provider will help you architect the WAN, provide project management for the implementation, and proactively monitor the network 24/7/365 once it is turned up. This results in a fast, secure network that will not require encryption.

2. VPN, Unmanaged: This is the do-it-yourself network that can be self-managed until you hit about four or five stores. After that, it becomes unwieldy to manage and remember multiple broadband providers. You will need to have someone (or a team of technicians) who can travel to the stores and install the equipment as well as (regularly) maintain the firewall security and perform firmware updates.

3. VPN, Managed: In this scenario mission critical data travels over the public Internet between the store and the corporate office. A hardware device (or software) at each end goes through the process of building a "tunnel" between the stores and the data center. Then each device encrypts the data packets on one end, and decrypts them on the other. Keeping the VPN Tunnel up is intensive enough. Add on to that the hard work of encryption and decryption and you will experience high latency and network outages when the tunnel drops.

The marketplace is rife with WAN providers. This has led to phenomenal competition. Competition leads to innovation (another reason to only build for a five year period). Some of the newest players (2000 to present) bring the best value to their customers. The tier 1 providers are, of course, still there. Smaller, more agile companies may provide the flexibility you need. How much you invest needs to be in direct proportion to the service you receive. Find a company that wants to help you be successful. Have at least two meetings with a company before you start to discuss the "How Much" question. It is absolutely essential that you both understand what will be needed in terms of bandwidth, uptime, monitoring, redundancy, billing, and other services. Remember, this is an investment to increase revenue. "But David, how can that be?", you ask. Consider this:

Fraud, theft, Inventory shrink are all losses we would like to eliminate. Your new WAN will allow for immediate access to POS transactions, current inventory levels, and make catching the "till dipper" red-handed, adding thousands to your bottom line. Video surveillance will also help catch the nighttime burglar, not to mention the rogue employee that has inventory going out the back door. The entire world is quickly moving toward Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) and for good reason. Site-to-site calls are free! Site to Corporate calls are free! Long distance charges can be eliminated! Sending credit card and gift card transactions over the WAN will reduce the processing time from 30 - 40 seconds down to 2 - 3 seconds. Customers move quickly through the check out line and have a happier experience, bringing them back more often. Additionally, processors may lower your per-transaction fees for using a faster connection than dial-up. Creating a WAN will eliminate the need for costly phone lines. A broadband connection can share your existing fax line and you may be able to eliminate lines for ATM machines, credit card machines, and others. These add up to very real dollars being pushed straight to your bottom line.

Making the decision to design and implement a WAN is a terrific first step. Don't underestimate the amount of effort and time that will be required to make your project a success. Find a good partner in the marketplace that is like-minded and will work with you flexibly to meet and exceed your needs.

By David Chambers

David Chambers helps clients design, build, and manage their network infrastructures.  He lives in Dallas, TX with his lovely wife of four years and their two children.  He may be reached at  [mailto:davidcchambers@gmail.com]davidcchambers@gmail.com or 866-607-9468.

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