Connectivity issues at the workplace can be a nightmare to any company. The scene becomes worse for multi-format retailers, which place prime importance on business continuity. So when a large chain like Spencer's Retail Ltd (which runs about 300 outlets across 50 Indian cities) has to deal with downtime, the devil has to be in the details.
It was mandatory that Spencer's manage its head office, warehouses, zonal offices, regional offices and retail stores with as little downtime as possible. For Spencer's, the SAP ERP application hosted at its headquarters in Kolkata and accessed through BSNL's Multiprotocol Label Switching (MPLS) VPN seemed a good combination, till VPN downtime started affecting the business. Spencer's branches at remote locations experienced connectivity and network management issues, due to lack of broadband connectivity. That's when Spencer's began looking for a cost-effective backup for the VPN in some of its critical locations. "We needed a reliable store network, secure and controlled Internet access. It was essential that the network be remotely manageable," said N Alagappan, the head of Spencer's Retail Ltd's IT team.
As a result of this need, Spencer's went through the regular grind of benchmarking solutions, which included those like Tata Indicom's Road Warrior. It finally settled on Elina Network's ENPAQ's VPN and Business Gateway at an initial software cost of Rs 18,000. The software has an annual license cost (including support and upgrades) of Rs 14,000. Spencer's deployed this solution in January 2008 across 65 critical business locations, in a phase-wise manner. All the 65 locations were covered over 18 months. Since normal IT engineers can manage VPN connectivity, it eliminates the need for a dedicated engineer at branches.
The Elina solution helps Spencer's to create secure VPN pipes over the Internet between two point-to-point locations. The VPN gateway is located at the headquarters, while business gateway is deployed at all the offices (zonal as well as regional), hypermarts, and small stores. When the primary line (MPLS network) is down, the ENPAQ software automatically sets up a VPN link on broadband, connecting end users with the data center. Users accessing critical applications like SAP switch over to the backup VPN. "Our investment is just a desktop and an Internet connection," says Alagappan. Similarly, SAP traffic can also be directed through this backup VPN.
Besides this, the ENPAQ solution also offers features like policy-based routing, load balancing between primary and backup VPN networks, user authentication, and remote management. It works as a proxy server at the gateway level. The solution also offers capabilities such as firewall, antivirus, antispyware, policy-based content filtering, and restricted browsing for users.
The remote management feature allows Spencer's Retail to monitor the network across various locations where ENPAQ is deployed. It provides up-to-date reports and dashboards on status of the network, packet loss, user access, and bandwidth usage.
Although implementation was smooth, Spencer's found it difficult to obtain broadband Internet access in certain tier two and tier three cities (the solution needs broadband for operation). "If there's no network, it impacts our business. This solution gives us 100% network uptime, keeps our ERP synced, and improves productivity," says Alagappan.
The backup VPN strategy also takes cares of branch (store) level security and network management issues. Central trouble shooting and maintenance has considerably reduced the central IT team's burden.