Tracy Collins, VP of Sales, Americas, Opengear
The risk and severity of downtime increase as retailers implement more sophisticated technology – in particular, IoT devices like point of sale (POS) stations, security cameras and self-service checkout kiosks. While foundational to a more convenient shopping experience, these devices depend on stable network connectivity. If the connection to network infrastructure and edge applications becomes compromised, retailers cannot complete transactions, secure their stores and schedule logistics. As such, retailers need to understand the consequences of downtime, identify the cause of outages and implement solutions that promote network resilience. It’s also vital that retailers plan accordingly for the last mile problem.
The Consequences of Network Downtime in Retail
Perhaps the most debilitating consequence of network downtime for retailers is lost sales. In addition to taking down physical devices, network outages can also make online stores and customer relationship management systems inaccessible. For all industries, the historic cost of downtime has recently grown from $5,600 per minute to $9,000 per minute. For large retailers specifically, a 2020 ITIC survey found that the average cost is around $5 million per hour, backing up findings that show downtime is costlier for larger companies than smaller ones.
Non-monetary consequences may not be as easy to calculate but are just as costly nonetheless. For example, downtime can erode relationships with customers who will leave scathing reviews, resulting in increased customer turnover. It can also harm the well-being of employees who must deescalate tensions with frustrated and angry shoppers – ultimately, this extra stress increases employee turnover. Another equally troubling effect of network downtime is a retailer’s inability to collect data. Today, data is essential for retailers, helping them track trends, drive revenue growth and predict stocking requirements. When a retailer’s data analytics team attempts to glean insights from raw data, they must account for gaps, decreasing accuracy.
Identifying the Cause of Network Disruptions
There are many ways that a network can become disrupted and cause retailers to experience downtime, including ISP carrier issues, fiber cuts, human errors and cable interconnects. Likewise, as retailer technology gets more complex, so do the network devices. In fact, because software stacks require so many updates, they inadvertently make themselves more prone to bugs, exploits and cyberattacks, which lead to more outages. Notably, retailers are one of the prime targets for cybercriminals next to financial services and government agencies.
With assets growing in complexity and hosted more often at the edge, a retailer’s network administrators must quickly and remotely diagnose issues. Nevertheless, identifying the why behind an outage is challenging without full network visibility. Out of Band management is one solution that allows network administrators and engineers to securely monitor network devices. This network strategy provides an alternative path to devices at remote stores when the primary network goes down. Furthermore, Out of Band management lets network administrators access and manage devices without impairing normal operations. It is also worth noting that some of the best Out of Band solutions can integrate seamlessly with existing IT networks and management systems, eliminating deployment cycles and headaches.
The Four Pillars of Network Resilience
There are four pillars to building a truly resilient network in a retail setting. As discussed in the previous section, network administrators must monitor and manage infrastructure without interrupting operations. In other words, they need an alternative path to devices outside the production or primary network. Out of Band management, including Failover to Cellular, can provide this alternative path to maximize uptime at dispersed retail locations. Simultaneously, retailers require enterprise-grade security to monitor and access their networks. Thankfully, some of the leading Out of Band solutions comply with even the most stringent security and encryption requirements, allowing administrators to more effectively enforce management policies.
The third pillar of network resilience is secure provisioning. Flourishing retailers are constantly provisioning new stores, making it vital that the appliances in those locations can combine Out of Band with the flexibility of automation. Doing so will enable retailers to automate everything from configuration to the initial set-up from a central location. Lastly, network resilience, as mentioned above, is impossible if administrators cannot maintain visibility of the entire network during an outage. To drive always-on connectivity, retailers need a way to restore WAN (wide-area network) without manual interventions. Solutions like Failover to Cellular permit retailers to restore WAN automatically and continue operations as their IT team identifies and resolves the network issue.
The Last Mile Problem
Another challenge that retailers need to overcome to establish a resilient network is what’s known as the last mile problem, which continues to persist as retailers rely on cloud services and SD-WAN (software-defined wide-area network). The last mile is the final segment of the WAN network that connects retail stores, data centers and distribution outlets to SD-WAN and cloud services. This last mile is the weakest link in connectivity, as all the traffic from the stores, branches and distribution centers gets funneled through single links. As a result, the bandwidth limits the amount of data transmitted to an ISP.
To overcome this last mile problem, retailers need a solution that provides additional bandwidth and availability. Likewise, retailers need a link separate from the last mile to achieve uninterrupted Internet connectivity for their branch LANs and equipment. Out of Band and Failover to Cellular technology empower retailers to use an alternate network path not connected to the last mile, giving them enough speed to keep the network running smoothly and enabling engineers to remediate issues remotely. Moreover, having such solutions in place will prepare retailers not only for their networks’ worst days, but also for first-day provisioning and every day in between.
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