A redesign of any nature takes considerable thought and planning, whether that means finding the perfect tile for a room or choosing the right option to improve a wide area network.
For The Tile Shop, a home improvement retail store, factors like cost, functionality, efficiency, maintenance and ease of installation normally apply to its customers redesigning a room. But, recently, The Tile Shop applied these factors to its own redesign: making its WAN software-defined with Citrix NetScaler SD-WAN devices. NetScaler SD-WAN has the ability to bond multiple WAN links together into a single virtual WAN to get maximum throughput. It also offers WAN optimization, improved application performance and end-to-end quality of service, among other features.
The Tile Shop, headquartered in Plymouth, Minn., was looking for options to increase the overall bandwidth to its almost 130 U.S. stores, said Keith Hogie, CIO of The Tile Shop. Each retail store location used a singular T1 line that provided 1.5 Mbps of bandwidth. But the limited bandwidth was too restrictive for what the stores needed, he said.
Businesses increasingly making the leap to SD-WAN product or service options are looking for more efficient bandwidth use; increased performance to better serve customers, partners and employees; and savings on telecom costs over time.
In The Tile Shop stores, sales associates use Webmail, and customers send PDF project files that contain floor layouts and other large files, Hogie said. "When our sales associates even opened a Webmail element, it could take 30 seconds to a couple minutes to open a PDF file."
Keith HogieCIO of The Tile Shop
This kind of delay tampered with the stores' customer experience and interfered with store operations, he added. Additionally, halfway through 2016, The Tile Shop introduced Design Studio to its stores, an interactive web-based tool that allows customers to create room layouts and choose tile, so they can virtually preview a room.
"That tool requires sufficient bandwidth to really operate smoothly," Hogie said. "So, that was part of the challenge, too. We needed enough bandwidth so the web-based tool could operate efficiently enough for both our customers and our sales associates."
To address the issue, The Tile Shop considered how it could provide enough bandwidth to all its stores. Increasing the company's dedicated MPLS circuit was an option, Hogie said, but that proved too expensive. Local cable or DSL providers could provide more bandwidth, but he said he didn't know if it would it be as much as the stores needed.
Taking the first steps toward SD-WAN
The Tile Shop talked with Emergent Networks, an IT consulting company based in Minneapolis that introduced the topic of SD-WAN. Hogie said The Tile Shop then compared a couple of competing SD-WAN products, but ultimately chose Citrix NetScaler SD-WAN devices. NetScaler SD-WAN supports a combination of T1 lines and cable or DSL connections, and it utilizes the bandwidth each link provides. The multiple links plug into the NetScaler SD-WAN device, which bonds the links together into a single software-defined WAN, so a company can get more throughput for increased performance. Now, each store gets a NetScaler device, a T1 line and a local internet connection.
"We can leverage the bandwidth capability of the local DSL or cable line coupled with the ability of the T1 line to provide better performance for our stores," he said.
Another primary factor in The Tile Shop's decision-making was NetScaler's ability to work with Citrix XenDesktop, which Hogie said the stores already ran.
The redesign process
After making the decision to go with NetScaler, the initial pilot took three to four weeks, as The Tile Shop worked out how to integrate NetScaler SD-WAN with its existing network. After a few implementations, however, the store cut down the needed installation time.
"From the time it takes to get a rack, plug everything in and get it turned up, it takes maybe about 30, 45 minutes at the offset," Hogie said. "But we basically plan for 30 minutes to get routed in the network."
Engineers from both Citrix and Emergent Networks worked with The Tile Shop for the first four or five store implementations, Hogie said. Those engineers trained The Tile Shop's network engineer, who is now able to configure new stores without help. The Tile Shop has implemented NetScaler SD-WAN into about 80% to 85% of its store locations. The challenge it now faces -- besides for the occasional lightning storm that literally fries some site units -- is getting a sufficient local cable or DSL backup line in place for about 20% of the store locations to use in combination with the SD-WAN devices.
"The going-in approach for any new store opening right now is that every new store has an SD-WAN appliance -- a NetScaler solution -- installed," Hogie said. "Then, it's just a matter of how quickly we can get the local cable or DSL connection in place."
The final reveal
The Tile Shop's intent going into its WAN redesign was to improve bandwidth. With the combination of NetScaler SD-WAN, broadband and T1 lines, the stores now have 50 to 100 Mbps of available bandwidth, rather than a 1.5 Mbps T1 only. In addition to increased bandwidth, the company realized other benefits. The NetScaler devices use end-to-end encryption for security.
In addition, Hogie called the web-monitoring tool built into the NetScaler SD-WAN fantastic. "We can pull up all of the locations simultaneously, and we're able to see the lines inbound and outbound to the store itself," he said. "When there is a line down, it's very easy to diagnose. It's literally like a green light, red light concept. So, the monitoring is very good, very simple, very clear."
As for the business case, The Tile Shop found a way to get the bandwidth it needed for better performance and customer experience, while saving on telecom costs and realizing a return on investment in an estimated 16 to 20 months.
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