NAPA stores, data centers to link via VPN

Connecting thousands of retail stores to central data centers can cost a bundle. That spurs some firms, such as Genuine Parts Co. in Norcross, Georgia, to turn away from expensive frame relay and toward less-costly virtual private networks (VPN) that use the Internet.

Officials at Genuine said this week that the company was in the process of deploying a VPN from Bethesda, Md.-based Lockheed Martin Telecommunications. By the end of the year, the VPN will connect 750 of Genuine's company-owned NAPA Auto Parts retail stores to data centers in Norcross, Ga., and Dallas.

According to Thomas Braswell, senior vice president of IT at Genuine, the network will eventually hook up an additional 5,000 NAPA franchise operations.

Braswell said he decided to consider frame relay or a VPN to connect stores because the existing dial-up system that polled his stores twice a day for parts orders and receipts was no longer adequate.

He said he wanted a network that would link NAPA stores to his central ordering database at the company's data centers around the clock, which would enable stores to share information on stock status. Braswell said he also wanted to give NAPA stores e-mail access and applications that would allow customers to order parts over the Internet.

"Conventional wisdom would suggest using frame relay," Braswell said, because it's a proven phone company technology that corporations have been using for years to connect network end points over dedicated circuits. Unlike a VPN, which amounts to using the Internet as a wide-area network, frame-relay connections use a private infrastructure.

But Braswell said frame relay has a drawback: its cost. He discovered that the monthly fee to run the network over a VPN through an outsourcer would be approximately 50 percent less than the cost of a frame-relay system. Security and performance remained a concern, however.

Although a VPN, by definition, is an encrypted, end-to-end private tunnel through the Internet, Braswell said he wanted assurance from the five network outsourcers he was considering using that they could provide security and guarantee a level of availability and performance that he could live with.

Braswell said he made sure performance of the VPN connection was comparable to frame relay by setting up several stores with dual connections. He then elected to go with Lockheed Martin as the network outsourcer.

"[Lockheed Martin uses Data Encryption Standard] encryption on the VPN, which gives us the level of security we need," Braswell said.

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