Dunn-Edwards takes the plunge into a cloud-based network

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Dunn-Edwards knew what it wanted to do, and it was up to Pete Garcia to make it happen.

The 90-year-old paint retailer is a major player throughout the Southwest home improvement market with more than 130 stores. The company has seen its fortunes climb with the growth of construction since the Great Recession ended, though management saw a developing need to address the consumer side of marketing by increasing its digital in-store footprint.

Los Angeles-based Dunn-Edwards has always primarily served the area’s extensive market of painting contractors, which makes up around 80 percent of its business. Its stores, however, are consumer-friendly, with sections highlighting paint samples and staff trained to assist in design. What the company wanted was to increase its digital in-store footprint.

“We had an initiative to address consumer needs and added a new position in the stores called a Paint Advisor,” says Garcia, manager of infrastructure services for Dunn-Edwards. “When someone comes in about changing the color of their house or a room, they give us a picture of it and using an Adobe cloud product we’re able to change the color to show them an idea of what it will look like.”

Dunn-Edwards also planned to show do-it-yourself consumers company-produced videos on topics such as preparing a paintable surface and how best to mask delicate areas. Each store also needed to show employee training videos, as well as use voice over Internet protocol to operate the phone system.

“We clearly needed more bandwidth,” Garcia says. “But that’s always a cost issue. We could get two circuits in a store but looking ahead to where we wanted to have a virtual point-of-sale system and other aspects, we saw that the bandwidth we had was not enough.”

Improved reliability

Technological analytics firm Gartner, which had been working with Dunn-Edwards, suggested that Garcia look into the relatively new technology of SD-WAN, software-defined wide area network. “Around the same time, we had been a customer of EarthLink for a while,” Garcia says, “and they told me that we’d be a good candidate to try it when they had it available. So it seems the stars aligned to make it happen.”

An SD-WAN differs from a more common wide area network in that instead of connecting locations and headquarters via hardwired T1 lines, each participating router is connected through a controller in the cloud. The cloud-based software controlling the network maximizes bandwidth in such a way as to allow for a “virtual” increase. This enables a store location to run a much larger number of Internet applications and devices than would normally be possible.

“Basically, the ‘brains’ of the network are sitting at a remote site,” says Greg Griffiths, vice president of product marketing for EarthLink. “Customers design the programming and application qualities they want at their remote locations. Adding new locations or making changes is also made much easier because you’re not making a lot of adjustments to hardware since it’s all cloud-based. We call it ‘network as a service’.”

Cost is a major consideration for retailers when it comes to IT improvements. A company with multiple locations doesn’t want to pay $1,500 per month per T1 line for each store. “Everyone’s looking for inexpensive bandwidth, which is why this solution works so well,” Griffiths says. “You also get improved reliability and better performance with cloud-based applications.”

Movement to what’s called the “hybrid cloud,” which encompasses SD-WAN, is likely to increase in the years to come. In a hybrid cloud one uses both public and private cloud services depending on how secure the information needs to be: Functions such as word processing can be handled through a cloud service like Office 365; more sensitive information like financial data can be carried through a secure line. Controller software coordinates between the two.

Firms that use a hybrid solution generally have more flexibility and options when transmitting data between locations.

“With SD-WAN you use multiple, diverse circuits from all locations,” Griffith says. “A software ‘brain’ in the cloud will instantly figure out the best possible path so you’re not dependent on any one line.”

Garcia and his team were intrigued — and had a number of follow-up questions.

“My main concerns were, will this system have a built-in redundancy? What’s the process of prioritizing traffic on the system?” Garcia says. “I wanted to be able to say, ‘We run Internet, SAP, Office 365, training videos, hosted voice. Here’s how I want it prioritized.’”

“Movement to what’s called the ‘hybrid cloud,’ which encompasses SD-WAN, is likely to increase in the years to come. To maintain the quality of our connections at a much lower expenditure is a huge benefit.”
— Pete Garcia, Dunn-Edwards

‘Access-agnostic’

In the past the Dunn-Edwards tech team would install an Internet circuit in a store and give a long list of instructions to store personnel about flipping switches to ensure access to various parts of the traditional WAN.

“With SD-WAN you’re just plugging it in and using it,” Garcia says. “That was what really sold me. It routes your traffic automatically so there’s no extra training for people in the store.”

Another selling point: The system’s response to a stress test Garcia conducted during the initial phase. He disconnected one of a store’s two T1 lines to see how it would affect phone quality and “It made no difference,” he says.

“Our engineers were wowed by that, since voice takes up so much bandwidth, and it’s crucial to the business of individual stores. We figured if it could handle voice on just one line it would work for us.”

Although SD-WAN is “easy” on the user end, there is work to do on the back end to make it seamless. “It takes a little engineering time to make sure the initial design and configuration works,” Griffiths says. “You’re typically customizing it for each retailer, since they all have different needs. You want to know how to prioritize the traffic, which can be different for every business.”

SD-WAN, by nature of being cloud-based, is also “access-agnostic.”

“It will use any type of bandwidth you have from whatever your source,” Griffiths says. “It takes from your ethernet, cable Internet, even wireless to create an aggregated bandwidth. In the past a retailer needed a primary high-speed line and a back-up in case that one failed. But a back-up that can run all of your applications is usually cost-prohibitive, so this is a game-changer.”

Future projects

Dunn-Edwards began its SD-WAN implementation in the fall across 12 stores, and Garcia was impressed by the results.

“We’ve occasionally had some jitter in the circuits but overall performance has been great. In stores where we had two T1 lines, we were able to disconnect one and bring in cable or DSL, whatever we could get for the best price. To maintain the quality of our connections at a much lower expenditure is a huge benefit.”

The advantages of SD-WAN have Dunn-Edwards thinking ahead to future projects.

“Our goal is to eventually have guest networks for the benefit of our professional customers,” Garcia says. “They typically place an order and then there’s a short waiting period while their paint is prepared and mixed. They’re typically using their mobile devices anyway during that period, so it makes sense to provide them with a network.”

John Morell is a Los Angeles-based writer who has covered retail and business topics for a number of publications around the world.

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