No network nightmares

No network nightmares

In the second of our four-part weekly guide to network management, Lisa Kelly looks at best practice in business

With plans to open more than 50 stores nationwide this year to add to its portfolio of 160 branches, bed retailer Dreams cannot afford to lie back when it comes to ensuring its network is capable of supporting growth plans.

“We need the ability to get sites up and running quickly,” says IT director Lee Felton. “If we have not installed the internet protocol (IP) phones, it can affect sales.”

Having a strong partnership with communications specialist CC is the bedrock of Dreams’ confidence in its network management capability. But this was not always the case.

“When I joined Dreams in 2005, the network was stable but the relationship with CC was not good,” says Felton. “It was a case of them and us and not a partnership, but we were not necessarily sharing our strategy and growth plans. With the company opening between 20 and 30 branches per year, the only constant is the amount of change. And with that growth scenario, you need a strong relationship with your suppliers.”

Processes were put in place to build a partnership ­ – see Key business process, below – ­ and today Dreams and CC work as a team to ensure the network meets Felton’s key network criteria of resilience, flexibility, security and stability.

“The relationship with CC has grown in importance as we have grown and added locations,” he says. “Communications have to be ready before a store opens to the public, as sales staff need to be familiar with the products, and we have to be very open about how and what we are planning or ambitious growth would be nigh on impossible.”

Dreams has an MPLS (multi protocol label switching) IP virtual private network (VPN) which is being built up as new locations are added.

The converged network supports the company’s head office in High Wycombe and nine home delivery depots that have leased lines and ADSL connectivity for the branches.

MPLS was chosen for its advanced routing, flexibility and resilience so the retailer could implement features such as quality of service to support applications including voice over IP (VoIP).

“When we decided four years ago that we wanted to be dealing centrally with remote sites, the conversation started turning to IP,” says Felton.

With IP phones at every branch, Dreams saves on the cost of internal calls ­ – but there are plenty of other network management advantages to be gained from the IP VPN network.

The standard setup for each Dreams branch uses Tiscali and Cisco products, but Dreams will work initially with available technology to ensure systems are up and running. When a new store opens, Dreams can speedily deploy a 3G connection into the core MPLS network if necessary.

“The solution did not exist as a product but CC built a plug-and-play product which is not onerous to configure with static IP addresses. The way the retail sector is going, we can be looking at taking over premises in a matter of days with no time to migrate all the lines from existing ISPs and telecoms suppliers, but by deploying 3G we can open to trade immediately,” says Felton.

“It can also be used as a backup for a store if there is a circuit failure and we keep a 3G router onsite at each branch so a shop need never be detached from head office.”

Felton says Dreams must be able to rely on CC and Tiscali to ensure continuity.

“With two million square feet of operating space, our stores need continuity. We have thousands of options for beds and cannot hold everything in stock, but orders need to be taken as quickly as possible so we can deliver as quickly as possible,” he says.

Sales from retail outlets are retrieved every 10 minutes via the network and recorded in the company’s general ledger, which is provided by Microsoft’s Navision software.

Orders are delivered to suppliers across Dreams’ electronic data interchange (EDI) platform, while its same-day delivery service means orders have to reach a home delivery depot distribution centre fast.

“You cannot provide same-day delivery options and offer extensive choice if the systems are not there. Our network is fundamental to the business because of the scale of data; it could not be processed unless we had a stable, quick, scalable network and reliable systems,” says Felton.“We rely on instant availability of information. There is never a case when we can say we do not need the network today.”

Resilience is a priority. For example, a home delivery depot will have two distinct connection routes ­ – a 2Mbit/s leased line into one exchange and a backup ADSL connection for failover into another. “If, for example, a digger goes into the leased line, a depot will stay connected by switching to ADSL and it is relatively seamless,” says Felton.

He says a crucial reason why Dreams is bucking the trend and opening more stores, while much of the retail sector is suffering a slump, is because its network allows the firm to focus on customer needs.

“Beds cost from under £100 to many thousands of pounds, but every order is important ­ – and we use IT to offer a high level of customer service.

“For example, we want our staff to stay with customers on the shop floor and not be interrupted by a telephone call, but at the same time a customer call must always be answered. So we are deploying session initiation protocol (SIP) to run with the network to bring in calls centrally and push out to branches. This means that if they are not answered because staff are busy with customers, the call can be dealt with centrally,” says Felton.

The firm uses Witness Systems call centre monitoring software to record calls for training purposes. “Witness is attached to the core telephony switches and it is a very good tool for helping call centre staff learn how to manage the customer,” says Felton.

He says sales staff also need to understand the product they are trying to sell, and Dreams provides an intranet that includes information about different bed features and benefits.

With the network underpinning every vital operation, the firm continually looks for enhancements. Last year it invested in network monitoring software which displays any potential problems on a screen in Dreams’ headquarters and on another at CC’s offices.

“We can see at a glance if there is a problem anywhere in the system. If it is green everything is fine, but if it is red, we can take pre-emptive action ­ for example, calling a branch and saying we know they are down,” says Felton.

Future plans for the Dreams network include videoconferencing.

“It is on the agenda for this year as we have multiple sites,” says Felton. “We will trial it in a small way as we only have one headquarters and the business is based on face-to-face dealings with customers, so the benefits to us will not be huge.”

One networking technology that Felton is not especially keen to deploy is wireless.

“In the head office we have a secure wireless network for use by support staff, but outside that environment, wireless would incur big overheads in terms of management time ­ such as making sure we have the right security with all the people we want to be connected,” he says.

The Dreams network runs CCTV cameras for surveillance and uses Websense technology for web filtering to ensure systems are being used safely and productively by staff.

Area managers are responsible for 12 branches and report to one of three regional managers. They can work from home and access to the firm’s VPN is managed by NetScreen technology from Juniper Networks. “Connection to the network is tightly controlled via the VPN,” says Felton.

The flexibility and security of the network enables home working and peace of mind from a management perspective, but Felton says the infrastructure’s key role is to facilitate the sale of beds.

Any problem with the network is dealt with efficiently via monitoring tools ­ and because of the good relationship with CC, Felton says Dreams can quickly establish whether a problem derives from a network or a software fault.

“We had a big problem with one of our applications and the application vendor said it must be a network problem. But we had three people from CC look into the problem and within two hours we knew the network was fine and it was an application problem,” he says.

Good communication between Dreams and CC guarantees confidence.

“Retail has become better at communicating with merchandise suppliers, but not necessarily with non-merchandise suppliers,” says Felton.

“We have addressed the problem as the more we trust and communicate with the people at CC, the better they understand our needs.”

Next week: the third part of our definitive guide to network management looks at the in-demand skills

Key business process

Sharing plans with supplier CC is at the heart of Dreams’ successful network.

Initially the relationship between the two was characterised by frustration – but now openness is guaranteed and the two work as partners with service level agreements (SLAs) providing a framework for realising expectations.

“We have processes in place for both organisations,” says Lee Felton, IT director at Dreams.

“From an IT management perspective, we want to have access to data and voice networking professionals. You either have to grow your own team and pay top dollar for people you are only using part of the time, or rely on a third party. But to use a third party successfully we need to be able to say to CC: ‘we need your help’, and know we can call even on Christmas Day if we discover a network problem.”

Preceding the positive change in the relationship, Felton says there were incidences of opening a shop on a Monday with everyone being ready to trade, but with no phone lines installed.

“It was a headache, but we now have processes in place governing things such as how we open new stores and how we communicate our store opening procedure to CC. The plans are dynamic but we are more able to see what might fall into jeopardy,” he says.

Dreams also undertakes regular resilience and architectural reviews with CC, covering data and voice, and chaired by Felton.

“Every quarter we have a complete network review and every connection’s failure rate and resilience is considered. It is expensive, but we have found that it is worth it,” he says.

However, SLAs covering uptime are kept proportionate to need. “You can spend an inordinate amount of money on resilience and only move a percentage point higher, so it is important to properly define and build any extra solution,” says Felton.

“We do not want to be at the bleeding edge or have to make changes because we are out of support, but we do want people to be able to turn on their PCs and know they will work.”

With the boom in home computing, Felton says that people’s expectations are high. “IT is no longer a black art and people expect everything to work,” he says.

But Felton also says SLAs ensure good communication and value for money. “We have very complex network SLAs to ensure it is up at core periods. If a leased line is taken down at 3am, we are not so worried, but if it is not up at 6am, we will punish harder,” he says.

“SLAs should reflect what you need. If you take the 24/7 approach, suppliers are less willing to pay the higher penalties, but if they know what is important to you and at what time, you will get supplier buy-in.”