Tuesday, February 07, 2006

More On....Meeting Your Bandwidth Requirements For Supply Chain Management Applications

As I pointed out in a previous article, Supply Chain Management (SCM) is a complex animal. The key to a successful SCM implementation is a clear understanding of the business objectives and business requirements of the company the SCM primarily supports. This often includes a number of legacy systems which need to be integrated into the solution. From this will come the technical objectives to be met and the technical requirements that frame the solution. Only then will the commmunication requirements for bandwidth capacity, reliability, resiliancy, latency, security, and expandability be meaningful.

Here's just 2 such technical aspects.....

Frame Relay

Frame relay initially had several advantages over the alternative solutions for SCM and other multi site and multi company communications networks.

The first advantage was with circuit costs. For a multi site network, the traditional approach was a large number of point to point circuits. Each circuit required a router port, a CSU, and often a circuit monitoring module. With milage based pricing, each circuit represented a significant recurring cost on top of the initial hardware costs. Router sizing was often a factor of ports supported rather than performance capability.

Frame relay exchanged the point to point circuit costs with an access circuit, typically at less than 1/10th of the cost. With port speeds from DS0 to DS3, multiple sites could be connected with a single port at each site. A partial or full mesh, even with full redundancy, could be accomplished with very few router ports and CSU at each site. This represented significant capital savings.

Using fractional T1 and T3 on the access circuits, frame relay made expanding capacity between sites relatively painless. Port changes within the frame relay provider's network was often a configuration change. Expanding the actual circuits was typically a configuration change on the CSU and DACS.

Adding new sites was often accomplished with physical changes at the new site only. The new PVC across the frame relay network and at the existing site(s) was a configuration change. Depending on the routers used and the routing protocol implemented, this might be accomplished without a maintenance window.

The PVC approach allowed for additional security. A given location could be directed to a specific port within the DMZ, limiting the exposure of one's own network to other vendors within the SCM network. Firewalls at each end allowed each company to control its own security. The frame relay network was vulnerable to external monitoring at very few points, and the relationship of PVC traffic to specific customer required specific network design information.

Frame relay offered the ability to have a disaster recovery site support multiple locations. PVC between the disaster location and other locations could be defined in the configuration, allowing dynamic implementation of the disaster recovery network.

As a circuit protocol, frame relay functions independent of other protocols. This segmentation allowed IPX, IP, SNA, and other system communications protocols to be implemented over the same paths. If desired, each of these could have its own PVC and bandwidth, or they could all operate over a common path. Finally, the bandwidth and performance could be established specifically to site pairs on a PVC basis.

For a vendor that participated in multiple SCM networks, frame relay represented real cost savings. Instead of a new circuit for each network, a PVC could be established. Instead of 6 week circuit installation delays, service could be established in hours.


So why the past tense? The advantages of frame relay are now achieved via the Internet. The timeframes for implementation have been reduced from hours to minutes. Encryption has advanced beyond the security offered by isolated paths. Advances in application based routing can achieve availablity assurances. Legacy protocols have been largely replaced by IP.

There are still times when frame relay is the best choice based on business requirements or technical constraints. But a robust bandwidth network (e.g. OC3 or OC12 bandwidth....perhaps with GigE connectivity) applying IP protocols will enable a seemless flow of information without risking security concerns.

Emerging Technologies

The most notable is Radio Frequency Identification, or RFID. RFID tags are essentially barcodes on steroids. Whereas barcodes only identify the product, RFID tags can tell what the product is, where it has been, when it expires, whatever information someone wishes to program it with. RFID technology is going to generate mountains of data about the location of pallets, cases, cartons, totes and individual products in the supply chain. It's going to produce oceans of information about when and where merchandise is manufactured, picked, packed and shipped. It's going to create rivers of numbers telling retailers about the expiration dates of their perishable items—numbers that will have to be stored, transmitted in real-time and shared with warehouse management, inventory management, financial and other enterprise systems. In other words, it is going to have a really big impact.

Another benefit of RFIDs is that, unlike barcodes, RFID tags can be read automatically by electronic readers. Imagine a truck carrying a container full of widgets entering a shipping terminal in China. If the container is equipped with an RFID tag, and the terminal has an RFID sensor network, that container’s whereabouts can be automatically sent to Widget Co. without the truck ever slowing down. It has the potential to add a substantial amount of visibility into the extended supply chain.

Right now the two biggest hurdles to widespread RFID adoption are the cost of building the infrastructure and the lack of agreed-upon industry standards. But regardless...RFID implementation will be bandwidth intensive to retrieve and disseminate the mountain of information such a tool will provide.


The answer to how to meet bandwidth requirements for SCM applications is as complex as ever. The addition of emerging technologies like RFID into the mix of legacy point-to-point approaches, the frame relay darling, and the simplification afforded by OCx backed IP protocols....means your IT staff will be pegging their stress meter trying to make a decision. To navigate the aspect involving researching and acquiring the right bandwidth solution....do yourself a favor. Use the services of an independent unbiased consultant such as FreedomFire Communications to navigate the minefield for you. Your IT staff will love you for it.


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