“I’m sorry, the system is slow today.” How often have your salespeople or clerks said this phrase when trying to complete a sale or check if something is in stock? Not only does this reflect poorly on your brand but it can actually cost you sales, turning off potential customers who are waiting for service.
But there’s also the online experience to think about. If your network can’t handle the shopping volume, online shopping carts will be abandoned.
What does this mean for midsized retailers with multiple branches? Ultimately you’re trying to provide for the best customer experience in your locations. Besides your POS systems, your network configuration can contribute significantly to business efficiency.
Retailers have made many technology improvements to their models over the past couple of years, such as adding e-commerce and allowing for mobile transactions. But these are high-bandwidth workloads that end up straining your network. Simply adjusting your Internet speed is not going to be enough, and sometimes going that route can be costly, add more complexity and more security requirements to your infrastructure than necessary.
What’s a retailer to do? Recent technology advances have offset business challenges, most notably a software-defined approach to networking.
Fixing the Problem with a Software-Defined Networking Approach
A wide area network (WAN) is a network that spans a large geographical area. A WAN connects different smaller networks, including local area networks (LANs), and is typically used for banks and retail stores. Traditional WANs are expensive and complex, forcing businesses to install complicated infrastructures at their branch offices consisting of routers, WAN path controllers, WAN optimizers, firewalls and other components. When something goes wrong anywhere in the WAN, it has to be manually fixed by a technician sent into the field – which again, can be a large expense.
Software-defined wide-area networks (SD-WANs) address these issues.
What Exactly Is an SD-WAN?
The software-defined wide-area network (SD-WAN) is a subset of software-defined networking (SDN) technology as used in combination with WANs. SD-WANs are especially useful and cost-effective when used to connect networks that span geographic distances, such as retailers with branch offices scattered around a state or even country. The SD-WAN does this by pulling the traditional network layers apart. By separating the data plane – which carries traffic – from the control plane, the network becomes software driven. This gives the network administrator power to control how applications are managed as they traverse the network. Examples of control include the setting of security at the server level and shaping traffic for specific application types through policy settings. For example, you can prioritize or block specific packets based on available bandwidth. And, you can add bandwidth dynamically when you need it.
Think of retail-store lighting as a comparison. It’s the difference between having to walk around the store turning each light on or off individually rather than having a central switch that does it all. By using this central control, which represents SD-WAN, you’ll be able to do things like schedule the lighting to change at desired times of the day, or send alerts when a light goes out.
Since SD-WAN transforms the network into a software-controlled infrastructure, companies can send network traffic along the most efficient route rather than using the traditional “hub and spoke” network model. And with SD-WAN, network administrators can combine all the network and broadband assets together under a single, software-controlled interface that allows them to write policies and control traffic on the fly without the need to individually re-program routing tables across the network.
This allows you to prioritize how your network treats data. For example, if you have a critical application – such as your inventory system or e-commerce site – you don’t want that to be slowed down by less important data. You can program your network to automatically prioritize your e-commerce site traffic, and route it appropriately.
Advantages of SD-WAN
The chief attraction of SD-WAN technology is that it delivers a business-class, secure and simple software-controlled WAN connection. This connection uses cost-effective open-source and software-based technologies to allow you to manage the network from one remote location. Here are some other benefits:
- Quickly add new stores. Opening a new store? No problem. You don’t have to rebuild your WAN or lay new groundwork because most of the work is done via software from a central location.
- Automatically run bandwidth-intensive workloads in real time. This technology allows you to prioritize workloads that require a lot of bandwidth from your network, such as running VoIP, setting up videoconferencing calls to train your staff at remote stores and running your e-commerce site.
- Reduce maintenance requirements. Because you can do everything remotely through software, SD-WANs require much fewer site visits.
- Enable integrated network access. Both your store and website need to integrate information over unified applications that are simple for employees to learn and use. SD-WAN connects cloud-based applications to data across a common network interface providing near real-time access from any Internet-connected device.
In the Future Everything Will Depend on the Network
For today’s retailers, the branch network is a critical part of their business strategies. One study found that although online sales are rapidly growing, 94% of sales still occur at brick-and-mortar stores. But an entire 50% of shoppers are doing something called “showrooming” – visiting physical stores to actually see and touch products, but then eventually making their purchases online. This behavior is typically a result of price.
Similarly, while they are in a store, 77% of shoppers use their smartphones to check prices online prior to buying. With the right network, retailers can entice on-site consumers who tend to be online shoppers into their digital stores by offering free WiFi. This gives retailers twice the opportunity to “capture” customers.
In fact, another survey found retailers moving toward what is called “unified commerce,” where customers get a consistent and personalized experience no matter what channel they use to shop at a store. More than half of retailers (56%) said their no. 1 technology goal is to achieve this.
The foundation of SD-WAN does not involve new technology. Instead, it requires repackaging existing technologies that network service providers integrate and sell. Similarly, it is not a new concept to be able to centrally manage a WAN. However, the combination, with the ability of SD-WAN to dynamically share multiple networks across branches, is a useful – and even exciting – technology for retailers.