How ageing infrastructure is leaving retailers behind

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Retail technology is constantly changing and retailers are right to want to stay up-to-date, but ageing infrastructure is holding many back.

What can be done to ensure retailers don't get left behind?

Continual Change

There have been many changes in the specification and deployment of network infrastructures in the retail sector over the last 40 years, and also the technologies that customers wish to support.

One of the biggest changes to the way we deal with network requirements was the introduction of Structured Cabling in the early ‘90s. This meant retailers could move away from the practice of layering multiple cable technologies in their sites to support different systems, as well as the inherent issues of legacy redundant cabling as systems got upgraded.

Future Proof – If Done Properly

Structured Cabling gave us a single, standardised, resilient, high performance cable system that could support practically any technologies required, and was “future proof.” Indeed most manufacturers offered at least 15 year warranties from the outset, often extending to 25 years.

And this was truly the case – if done properly.

Category 5E cabling was introduced in the mid ‘90s, and was capable of supporting practically any legacy protocol, as well as up to 1Gb Ethernet to every device. And that is still completely acceptable for most of today's applications. What other IT technology is still going strong after over 20 years?

Key Design Elements for Success

However, there are some key design elements that retailers should adhere to, in order to maximise the lifetime and success of the cabling infrastructure, including:

Flood wiring the site – installing as many outlets as possible in as many positions as possible.Using a quality cable system – installed to correct standards, with manufacturer warranties.Ongoing management – managing ongoing upgrades, IMACS.

Whilst most organisations with large scale cabling systems will have followed these practices and gained maximum benefit over the lifetime of the infrastructure, there are other user groups where this is often not the case, and all the old problems and issues of the ‘80s and ‘90s persist. This is typical of organisations with multiple, small sized locations, with limited or no local IT resource – a good example of this being the retail sector.

Problems Persist in Retail Sector

Many retailers have allowed their shops’ networks to develop in an ad-hoc fashion over years, and not adhered to all (or any) of the above principles.

Today the pace of technological change in the retail sector is greater than ever, and it’s critical that retailers are able to retain market share by implementing the latest innovations in systems and applications. If the infrastructure is not up to the job, they simply can't do this.

Wi-Fi beacons and access points, m-POS, audio streaming systems, hand held terminals, new high speed network equipment, firewalls, access control, customer information systems/kiosks, IP-CCTV, digital signage, IP lighting - all technologies that a retailer should be able to simply deploy onto their network. But this is rarely the case.

How Did This Happen?

Many retailers that might have started with limited structured wiring to support the first networked POS systems have subsequently had to install new wiring systems to support the next wave of technology, and the wave after that.

The original cabinet and patch panels often weren't sized to take any expansion, so a new cabinet is installed with new wiring just for the new application, resulting in multiple disparate cabling systems for different technologies. Same old problem!

Lack of management control of these systems also means that there are no procedures to govern who can access the cabinets and install new equipment and wiring, so the cabinets becomes an overflowing ‘rats nest’ of patch leads that no one dares touch.

The end result is that any new technology rollout is, at best, fraught with difficulty, expensive and time consuming.

Challenges Persist Today

There is still resistance within many retailers who would prefer to save money, but the issues will simply pile up until this becomes a major business problem for them.

The first challenge is to get the retailer to understand that the infrastructure is as critical to the store as the walls, roof, heating and lighting.

Then they need to accept that long-term investment and commitment is required, as well as implementing strict management practices.  You simply can’t ‘contract out’ ownership of the network infrastructure, and this mantra needs to filter right down to store level.

Key Ingredients for Success

The key points that any organisation must adhere to will ensure their network infrastructure is not only capable of coping with current demands, but stops it being a barrier to development in the future:

Ensure that cable systems are fully up to spec – develop an internal standard for premises cabling, and measure all sites against this standard. Take action to address any non-conformities.

Re-patch – Remove and replace all patch leads from wiring cabinets and replace with new, removing any redundant patch leads, cable and equipment. Use colour coded patch leads, and document the current state, ensuring there are centrally held and site held copies, ideally through a cable management application.

Maintain control – Develop and implement a management regime that ensures any and all modifications to the infrastructure are controlled:

Allocate site responsibility to local person.Lock cabinet, and ensure all access and any changes are documented and signed for.Contractors should sign for work done and update patching schedules. ‘Before and after’ photos should be taken to help maintain an audit trail.Ensure a member if the IT team is responsible for the network infrastructure across the distributed sites, and engage them in all IT projects.

Do not cut corners! – Whilst tempting, especially where budgetary constraints apply,  skimping on the infrastructure will only lead to problems and greater eventual cost further down the line.

Summary

The next few years will see massive change in the technologies deployed in retail to attract and retain customers. Now is the time for retailers to act to ensure their network infrastructure is capable and up to the job, and doesn’t mean they get left behind.

By Andy Duck –Business Development at Barron McCann.

Fiona Cowlam

The blogs I will post will be from various member of the Barron McCann team. From the MD to our Service Managers, Workshop team and Engineers. We will be commenting on all the issues that our customers in retail and government face and share our expertise and experience as a major supplier of IT Service across the UK and Europe.

http://www.barronmccann.com

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