Top SD-WAN Use Cases for Retail Organizations

January 23, 2017

By Special Guest
Mike Wood, Vice President VeloCloud,

Calling the management of a wide area network connecting hundreds or thousands of retail locations a challenge is an oversimplification at the best of times. As the WAN becomes increasingly complex and more business- and mission-critical applications are delivered over the WAN infrastructure, the challenges associated with deploying, often rapidly, and managing such a network are growing by leaps and bounds.

Although private circuits with (Multiprotocol Label Switching) MPLS backbones have been the gold standard for delivery of business applications in retail, the bandwidth expansion needed for today's critical applications is making MPLS transport a far too expensive proposition for most retailers.

Add in the costs of sending workers out to sites each time changes need to be made or a new location needs to be brought online, and the costs to manage a WAN skyrocket.

The problem of escalating costs and increasing WAN complexity can be solved with appropriate use of Software-Defined WAN (SD-WAN) technology. As a WAN overlay, SD-WAN can address some of the most critical requirements retail organizations have in an increasingly complicated business world.

The Retailer Challenge

It's almost old hat to say that enterprises are strapped for IT resources.

"Do more with less" has been the mantra of many (if not most) enterprise IT departments for the last two decades. That's doubly true in the retail industry, where a relatively small number of techs need to administer and manage a complex, dispersed network of hundreds or thousands of locations (consider that the country's largest retailer has more than 5,000 locations in the U.S. alone).

Business depends on applications like point-of-sale and inventory management running without interruption throughout the entire business day. A slight hiccup can show on the quarter's bottom line, begging potentially uncomfortable questions from shareholders.

When retail locations are also increasingly relying on bandwidth-intensive applications like VoIP and unified communications, then jitter, lag and downtime are concepts that are even more difficult to accept.

At the same time, many retailers are currently going through growth spurts, either through greenfield store openings or acquisitions.

It's important for retailers to be able to roll out new branches and add new acquisitions to their networks as quickly as possible. One of the biggest obstacles they face is dealing with the time it takes to provision new private circuits, scheduling on-site technicians to install complicated network equipment and doing network reconfigurations and policy updates for network access to their required applications.

WAN Forklift Upgrades? No Need

Retail businesses often expand through mergers and acquisitions. Each new acquisition puts the onus on IT to integrate tens, hundreds or thousands of new branches.

Often there is no standard network design or single vendor provider.

Instead, IT is left to sort out dozens or hundreds of legacy equipment and circuit contracts, which can significantly slow down the onboarding process for newly-acquired retail locations.

Adding legacy systems from an acquisition to an existing WAN infrastructure is difficult, but a more lightweight solution could ensure provisioning of interim access to retail applications in relatively little time.

Mike Wood VP VeloCloud

SD-WAN is an effective solution for overlaying the application connectivity required on top of a jumble of physical layer and circuit assets. It enables specific traffic to be directed into the overlay for full access, while standards-based routing and VPN tunnels provide interoperability to legacy equipment. SD-WAN solutions that provide hosted headend gateway services for VPN in the cloud can further provide branch-to-legacy data center connections without any data center investment or reconfiguration.

Cloud-Delivered SD-WAN provides policy-based remote configuration to get retail branches onto the WAN and access to corporate applications without the need for an on-site technician.

Pop-up sites for retailers are especially impacted by both the time needed for setup and the potential inability to provision private circuits to locations not reached by communications infrastructure. The ability to easily leverage broadband, Wi-Fi and cellular connections helps accelerate all types of these retail branch deployments.

In addition to the performance challenges mentioned earlier in utilizing broadband, wireless circuits often have lower bandwidth and more variation in signal strength and congestion. Therefore, the ability of SD-WAN to easily aggregate links and dynamically adjust for different profiles is even more attractive for retailers. More advanced solutions can enable a single application flow to utilize multiple low bandwidth circuits for faster performance.

The SD-WAN Solution

With the unified management and policy-based utilization of multiple WAN circuits, as well as the application performance optimization capabilities, SD-WAN can help retail organizations improve their operations, increase application availability and reduce costs.

IT continues to thin out the footprint in the retail branch and consolidate services to improve efficiency and better leverage both capital expenditures and scarce IT resources. Network services like Internet firewalls, web security and data loss prevention (DLP) are being migrated to selected regional hubs or cloud providers.

However, there have been challenges with using cloud-located services. This applies to both moving traditional network appliances to colocation data centers or using hosted services. Redirecting traffic is complex, requiring end node reconfigurations or complex tunnels and forwarding from existing networking appliances. Existing device capabilities to forward traffic are often not very granular or application aware. Even more challenging is assigning different services by application, e.g. web email to regional DLP services and general web traffic to cloud web security. Even if forwarding could be easily addressed, forwarding traffic directly from the retail branch to cloud services is often best effort delivery over the Internet.

Only backhauling traffic across the private WAN through the data center can provide assured service.

Cloud-Delivered SD-WAN provides easy, policy-based forwarding of retail application flows to different on-premises and cloud services. Advanced SD-WAN solutions also incorporate network function virtualization (NFV) capabilities to provide new services on the retail branch CPE or Virtual CPE (vCPE) as well.

About the Author: Michael Wood is vice president of marketing for VeloCloud Networks, responsible for worldwide marketing, revenue generation, channel and sales enablement and communications. He has more than 20 years of leadership and management experience in the networking industry. Prior to VeloCloud, Wood served as vice president of product management and marketing for Akamai (News - Alert) (News - Alert) Technologies' Cloud Networking Business Unit. He also was an executive in residence, and is currently an adviser, for Plug and Play Tech Center, a startup incubator and accelerator. 

Edited by Maurice Nagle