Network Makeover

Managing networks gets harder as in-store technology grows

Angel Abcede, Senior Editor/Tobacco, CSP

MILFORD, Conn. -- Everything from a mobile application for store reports to temperature-monitoring devices for store coolers, sophisticated electronic solutions are becoming viable options for retailers today--if the right communications network is there to back it up. At a time when automation is offering groundbreaking possibilities, retailers are having to revisit the communication links that tie everything together, said one network and payment-processing provider.

Most retailers have a "centralized" network, where data from the point-of-sale, backoffice, tank gauges [image-nocss] and any number of other devices comes into a central hub and gets sent back out to processors, third parties or internally within the organization. "That is going away," said Michael Youngkin, director of client network solutions for Heartland Payment Systems Inc., Princeton, N.J., who lead a CSP-hosted webinar last week entitled, "Is Your Network Mobile?" [To view an OnDemand replay of this CyberConference, please click here (free to retailers and wholesalers; others, $49).]

In the near future, retailers will connect what he described as "out of band" third-parties through a direct connection versus relying on a centralized, "one point of failure" network. With the complexities of having multiple carriers, a growing number of new technologies and the burden of compliance to payment card industry (PCI) standards, Youngkin noted that many retailers are opting for "managed" or partially managed networks handled by third-party providers.

Detailing steps toward building a more efficient network, he said the first thing retailers need to do is conduct a physical inventory. Knowing what devices, cables, carrier commitments, firewalls and the purpose of all the technology on site is a key step.

Project management, he emphasized, was an important component of upgrading a network as well. "If not done correctly, you'll have problem."

Often retailers find they're underutilizing their device connectivity, he said, so figuring out how to optimize connections, reduce phone lines and bundle data is another important task.

Emerging trends such as so-called "cloud" technology and stronger "3G" and "4G" broadband options are also helping retailers better manage their data flow. With cloud services--or providers that charge users for computer space on off-site servers--third-party providers can "drop things off" in the cloud vs. having a dedicated connection.

In addition, non-land based communication options are becoming available. "Now the focus is not whether the service is terrestrial," he said. "The focus is on broadband."

An unnamed client who operates a travel center is currently streaming video efficiently with a dual-band 3G and 4G connection, he said.

One of the biggest complexities with developing or upgrading a network is PCI compliance, Youngkin said. It involves separating credit-card transaction from all other data being routed through the chain. Mandates also require certain devices to be compliant with PCI standards.

Youngkin ended his presentation with a photo of a tangled mess of computer and phone cables in the back room of a c-store. "Remember, that's 20 years of technology implemented one over the other," he said.

Angel Abcede, CSP/Winsight By Angel Abcede, Senior Editor/Tobacco, CSP
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