Retailers around the globe increasingly are adopting video technologies for training, customer education, conferencing and other uses. This puts a strain on the data networks that serve retail stores, creating a need for wireless area network optimization. In this article, we'll look at how next-generation WAN-optimization technology is improving operations for global retail organizations.

When bandwidth becomes constrained in retail networks, the only choices are to pay for more bandwidth from a service provider or to use WAN-optimization technology to get more out of the existing network. Though WAN optimization requires deployment of appliances at each network endpoint, it also eliminates the need to increase monthly recurring costs for bandwidth.

WAN optimization has been around for more than a decade, but traditionally it was achieved via a series of solutions that were narrow in focus, i.e., they only performed TCP/IP acceleration, bandwidth shaping, monitoring, or some other specific function. So, a complete solution involved several products that often contended with each other. Today, however, the best WAN-optimization appliances combine Layer 7 visibility, control and optimization engines that are fully integrated. This combination gives organizations the ability to specifically identify which applications are passing over the network and how much bandwidth each of them uses, and then to control and optimize bandwidth on a per-application or per-user basis.

In addition to application visibility, control and optimization, next-generation WAN-optimization appliances can include other features such as:

  • Detailed application and user reporting;
  • Single-sided caching for local Internet and video delivery;
  • Application performance scoring;
  • Microsoft Active Directory integration for visibility and control over specific users or groups.

"Since there are several approaches to WAN optimization, it makes sense to have them all integrated in one box," said Joe Skorupa, research vice president at Gartner. "Users should have all optimization techniques available to them under one interface where they can be more easily managed."

The combination of such features in a next-generation WAN-optimization product results in a complete solution that goes well beyond packet shaping, caching, monitoring or IP traffic optimization. For example, many global retail organizations are leveraging next-generation bandwidth-optimization technology to eliminate network-congestion issues.

One believer in WAN optimization is a world leader in the design of programs that increase total store sales by improving frequency, average transaction levels and other key performance indicators. Over the past two decades, this organization has partnered with many of the world's top retailers to successfully deliver measurable increases in revenue and market share. With annual sales of more than £500 million (about $787,000) and more than 250 retail clients in 50 countries, the firm supports a truly global operation.

With offices across the globe, the firm relies heavily upon internal and WAN connectivity for the exchange of information and research, as well as video conferencing. Because this firm is a multinational organization, it recognized that available bandwidth varied from region to region. So, it focused on improving WAN connectivity speeds.

Specifically, with 30 to 70 employees in each office, the ongoing availability and reliability of bandwidth was of crucial importance and the firm needed a solution that would deliver not only the facilities that it needed, but also detailed reporting capabilities. The firm was essentially "flying blind" on its network, with no ability to measure and anticipate bandwidth requirements for each office, to adjust and optimize bandwidth accordingly, and to produce reports that showed how much bandwidth was available in each location.

The results of a proof-of-concept trial demonstrated that WAN optimization delivered substantial performance improvements, effective management controls and improved reporting facilities. As a result, the firm rolled out such technology across its entire enterprise. Today, it has far better control over its global bandwidth and can see which applications are making the greatest demands. This has enabled the firm to identify problem areas and control bandwidth usage far more effectively.

WAN-optimization technology is being used by some retail organizations to speed time-critical banking data across their networks. For instance, some retail sites experience slow or inconsistent response time when utilizing point-of-sale (POS) terminals, a problem that is exacerbated when stores are connected via relatively low-speed satellite connections. Next-generation WAN-optimization technology allows the infrastructure and operation teams to optimize bandwidth between distribution centers, data centers and stores to mitigate the latency and congestion issues that often plague retail deployments.

Founded in 1991, the Glasgow, Scotland-based Optical Express Group has seen its portfolio develop to include laser eye surgery, private dentistry and healthcare services, and surgical and non-surgical cosmetic treatments, while it has maintained its core optics division that dispenses glasses and contact lenses. It currently operates in the U.K., U.S., Ireland, Croatia, Germany, France and the Netherlands.

Optical Express currently uses a Multiprotocol Label Switching network to link all of its sites across the U.K. and internationally. It is using the network for fixed-line voice and data, as well as for a Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) system. Eventually the company began to have issues with the network and the service provided by its incumbent provider.

"We started to experience real performance and network management problems," said Craig Duffy, IT manager at the Optical Express Group. "We chose to go with Vodafone to enhance our U.K. network because it had already been working with Optical Express for eight years to deliver mobile services and it was a natural step to providing a network for fixed-line voice and data."

Vodafone provided quality-of-service technology to prioritize voice traffic, as well as hardware-acceleration technology to maximize the effective speed of the network, which helps Optical Express share data between its sites. An appliance at each location provides visibility into network performance on a per-application basis, which enables Optical Express to prioritize bandwidth for video and image files. The results have been dramatic.

"The new network is up to eight times faster, in terms of bandwidth, than the previous solution," said Meesha Tanna, senior optometrist at Optical Express. "We take a lot of high-resolution images of eyes — which are essential to have a full medical record — and this results in a lot of data to move around the network."

The result is that Optical Express quickly can share eye images between stores. This allows a patient to visit a store that doesn't perform surgery for his initial consultation and then go to another site for the laser eye surgery, without the need for additional images to be taken. "The aftercare then happens at the local store for the patient's convenience — we'd always wanted to share these images, but the previous network couldn't cope with it," Tanna said.

The faster network also will enable Optical Express to stream video from its headquarters to its stores, which would be a useful tool when doctors are consulting with patients concerning delicate procedures such as laser eye surgery or cosmetic surgery.

"We currently have to manually send each video to each PC in a store, but this takes a lot of time for our IT help desk," Duffy said. "The ability to stream video will save time and free up our people for other tasks."

Optical Express plans to add video conferencing over the Vodafone network, which will reduce costs further — as well as its carbon footprint by cutting down on flights. "This will improve business performance with higher quality meetings," Duffy said, adding that the company also plans to replicate the success of the U.K. implementation across the other countries in which it operates — with Vodafone as its partner in each case.

In both of these cases, modern WAN-optimization technology has streamlined operations and enabled the use of big-bandwidth applications that wouldn't have been possible before. As retailers increase their reliance on video and large image files for everything from training to conferencing, such technology will play a more important role.

Patrick Wood is senior director of product management at Exinda Networks, a manufacturer of next-generation WAN-optimization solutions.