Retail: The ultimate distributed architecture

Technology in retail ranges from the wonders of the bleeding edge to a morass of home-brewed confusion.

The first might be typified by Wal-Mart, which has shown the large-scale retail industry the future through a complex yet efficient use of RFID technology, inventory, supply chain management, and interstore communications.

Unfortunately, most retail outfits fall into the second category for one simple reason. "We're notoriously cheap," says David Powell, manager of network and computing services at Spencer Gifts, a gift store chain with 620 locations across America. "We try to do everything on a shoestring, and we try to do it alone."

Until two years ago, fully half of Spencer's stores were connected to the world via a single telephone line that was used for everything from voice to credit card authentication -- even downloading the in-store Muzak content. The rest had two phone lines, with one reserved solely for credit cards.

"We had to do something," Powell says, "because in either scenario, credit card processing was unreliable and took an eternity even when it was working."

Spencer quickly realized that broadband to every site was a requirement and would allow the company to offer additional IT services to users on-site. So Spencer ordered 300 new DSL lines and converted the secondary phone lines in the other 300 stores to DSL as well.

"That alone was a tough job because we had to deal not just with the big DSL providers but the regional mom-and-pop providers, too," Powell says. "These guys tend to have monopolies in their regions, and you have to leave yourself time and flexibility to work around that. And after that was done, we needed to install the hardware, which, of course, wound up being an in-house job for cost savings."

Powell spent time looking around for a workable hardware solution and chose SonicWall's TZ 170 SP series of broadband routers because it fit his criteria, which included centralized management and an internal modem for redundant connectivity.

"We took a while planning this part of the project, but it paid off," Powell explains. The company had both the SonicWalls and the DSL modems shipped to its headquarters where both pieces of hardware were configured as a kit along with step-by-step instructions for plugging everything in. The company didn't have to spend money on sending IT folks to every location; instead, it merely needed to have someone near a phone to answer tech support questions.

Asked what lessons he learned from this vertical problem, Powell quickly replies, "Time. If you're working on a tight budget, break these projects into workable chunks and leave yourself enough time to complete each one."

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