EMV. PCI. PLU. SKU. There’s a hodgepodge of acronyms for multiple critical functions of the retail industry, and there are always new ones to get acquainted with. Here’s another one to know: SD-WAN, or software-defined wide-area networking.
Some retailers are at least tangentially familiar with the technology, but for those who aren’t, SD-WAN streamlines network management operations by separating the way a network is controlled from its hardware, allowing data traffic to be dynamically segmented and directed. This alleviates network congestion, providing higher reliability, and frees up capacity for more applications on a network, even bandwidth-heavy ones like live video streaming.
SD-WAN can be layered on top of existing connectivity solutions (MPLS, broadband, LTE) to interlink a retail branch’s in-store applications — including inventory and point-of-sale (POS) systems — with data centers, the cloud, a corporate headquarters and other branches.
Why Retailers are Embracing SD-WAN
SD-WAN has not traditionally been used in a retail space, but that has been changing in recent years as retailers realize what they stand to gain by adding this networking technology. Three key benefits include:
1. The ability to implement high-bandwidth features and applications
To attract foot traffic and retain customers, retailers are exploring new in-store digital and Internet of Things (IoT) capabilities: free customer Wi-Fi; kiosks, tablets and touchscreens connected to inventory or POS systems, for ordering or browsing; augmented reality and virtual reality experiences so customers can “try before they buy”; smart cameras and video analytics to learn foot traffic patterns and gauge customer reactions to displays and products; and more.
These bells and whistles come with a hidden cost, however: They can strain traditional networks. To support these connected devices and digital features in addition to business-critical applications, like POS systems, a network needs lots of bandwidth and very high reliability and uptime.
Because SD-WAN can improve network uptime, performance and redundancy, a retailer’s network can support the data traffic from connected devices as well as from payments terminals, back-end computers, and more — so everything stays up and running, and payments and sales don’t take more time to process.
2. The flexibility to try new strategies
Many startups and tech companies in Silicon Valley operate under the mantra of “fail fast and fail often,” while Mark Zuckerberg popularized “move fast and break things” — in other words, try new things all the time without being afraid to fail, so you can see what performs the best. That might work for startups and big tech companies, but retail branches that still use legacy networks don’t have the ability to “move fast” when scaling, or the option to “break things” by risking the stability of business-critical applications to try new applications that require connectivity.
Say a retailer decides to open a pop-up location to test a new market. To do this, the retailer must have a network that can quickly and cost-effectively scale to turn up a new branch, but scaling a legacy networking solution, like a traditional WAN that relies on MPLS, requires significant cost and time.
Or say a retailer decides to add a new cloud application to an existing store. MPLS is not designed to handle the high volumes of WAN traffic that cloud adoption creates, and this strains bandwidth and slows connectivity, including for existing internet-connected applications like POS systems.
With SD-WAN as an overlay on a network, scaling a network to a new location takes days rather than weeks. Retailers can test or open new locations, or add innovative new features and products, without worrying that more connected “things” on the network will affect other systems. SD-WAN will manage the network traffic appropriately, even from the cloud.
3. A better way to securely support all types of payment methods
Customers have myriad options these days for how and where they pay for products: cash, card, QR code, mobile app, eCommerce portal, kiosks, tablets, curbside, and more. With so many ways to pay, payment infrastructure is growing more complex, while the need to ensure security of payments becomes more urgent.
SD-WAN provides the reliable connectivity to support all types of digital payment options within a retail environment, alongside all other connected devices and systems within a branch, without sacrificing reliability or speed. Depending on the equipment and/or vendor, SD-WAN can also protect sensitive personal and financial data and traffic — key for the retail industry. Some SD-WAN solutions offer best-in-class security protocols like next-generation stateful firewalls (NGFW) (including IPSEC VPN tunnels), anti-virus features, URL filtering and TLS packet inspection.
Compliance with PCI DSS security guidelines is, of course, also critical. Some SD-WAN solutions available today have been designed to comply with PCI DSS data security requirements, helping to mitigate the potential risk that new software-based payments solutions coming to market may not be secure. SD-WAN’s ability to expand connectivity over a wider area also allows retailers to take payments in more places — outdoor terminals, pay-at-the-pump options, self-service kiosks and even tablets that serve as mobile POS terminals.
Supporting the Customer Experience
A retailer’s network is an essential piece of infrastructure for providing an exceptional customer experience, and it needs to reliably and effectively support more connected “things” — devices, apps, inventory systems, digital payments systems and more. Implementing SD-WAN can help retailers improve their in-store customer experiences, experiment with new strategies, and support payments systems while ensuring data security.
However, some retailers may be challenged to implement this technology, either because their in-house IT staff doesn’t have the time, expertise, or resources. Fully managed solutions can help in this instance. They remove the hands-on work of deployment while giving a business all the capabilities of SD-WAN solution— which allows retailers to focus on the Quality of the Experience for their customers, not their network.