How SD-WAN is transforming the retail industry

Retailers can build the network they need, when they need it

by Nemertes Research

Retail companies – whether they're rapidly undergoing digital transformation, or retrenching and restabilizing their business around cost-cutting measures, or somewhere in between while they search for their path forward – are unified by at least one thing: the need to refresh their networks.

On the forward edge of the digital transformation wave, they're seeking networks that can serve the needs of cutting edge retail models, applications, and services: for example, having pop-up locations, or creating virtual fitting rooms in a clothing shop, or virtual furniture placement for a home furnishings store.

On the trailing edge, they're seeking ways to reduce both the capital and operating costs of their networks: for example, shifting small stores to broadband-only connectivity to reduce overhead.

  • Software-defined WAN (SD-WAN), software-defined networking (SDN), and network functions virtualizations (NFV) will make the WAN what retailers need it to be for the future: flexible, responsive, efficient, and agile.

Can your WAN support this?

The WAN is the conduit for delivering both existing and bedrock services to retail stores (such as inventory and point-of-sale systems) and innovative new offerings. So, it needs to be available, always—no network, no services.

The WAN also needs to be high capacity, and able to deliver key applications reliably: problems such as jerky, variable response rates, or garbled audio, or jaggy, glitchy video make new services unpleasant to use at best, and simply unusable at worst.

Consider the following:

Cutting-edge retail

From virtual fitting rooms for “trying on” mass-customized clothing to be finished while the customer waits, to the ability to virtually place a new piece of furniture in an image of the customer’s living room, myriad new retail services will depend on some form of Augmented Reality (AR).

Delivering responsive, smooth, engaging AR requires both sufficient capacity on the WAN and the ability to manage traffic so as to protect the AR traffic from jitter and packet loss.

Retail revamped: the consultative sale

Other retailers, like high-end audio or video stores or hardware stores, may need to supplement on-site staff with “video experts.”

Instead of having to try to have all sorts of specialist knowledge right in the store, staff on-premises can reach out to expert centers so customers can do face-to-face consultation with real experts. Advice on fitting AV gear to the room it will be in, or on how to rewire a ground-fault outlet can be a video chat away – as long as the WAN can deliver the video and audio with clarity, consistency, and quality.

Retail revamped: pop-up stores

A retailer may want to reinvent their business model, focusing on getting physically closer to potential customers by adopting a flexible and dynamic store siting strategy. With the goal of opening many more locations than in the past, they want most to be far smaller than under their old model, with some to be mobile, and some to be seasonal or otherwise temporary (e.g. centered on an event like a concert or holiday).

To support this, they’ll need WANs that can add and move locations with low lead times, easily, quickly, and without disruptions.

Retail for less

Reducing overhead is always a goal, but as resources need to be freed up to pursue new and transformative business initiatives, it becomes even more critical and urgent. Specifically, retailers want to stop spending on unneeded capacity and functionality that they get because they might need it three years from now, or “just in case.” They want to stop having their WAN choices dictated by the whims of specialty hardware vendors with respect to the capacity and feature set available in a location.

To wring every last bit of unnecessary overhead from a location, and from operation of the WAN overall, retailers need a WAN that can leverage SDN and NFV to run on generic hardware, and embrace flexible, just-in-time deployment of capacity and functionality.

Why does the WAN need to evolve?

Its age is showing. It was most likely architected to meet a different set of expectations, with several underlying assumptions:   

  • Bandwidth would be scarce and costly   
  • Available services would be slow to change   
  • New services would take months or years to roll out   
  • Every site would be managed as a unique entity   
  • Business could go on without the network   
  • Everything runs on software tightly coupled to special purpose hardware

Going forward, to meet the needs of a more agile business model and more dynamic business environment, WAN design needs to be reframed with a different set of assumptions:   

  • Bandwidth is abundant and available in many media   
  • Available services will change rapidly   
  • New services can be deployed in days or weeks   
  • IT will manage the WAN holistically   
  • Software will run on generic hardware   
  • All services depend on the network

SD-WAN powers the future enterprise WAN

Enterprises using SD-WAN will be able to supplement and expand on their backbone connectivity – which will remain MPLS for 75 percent of retailers for the next several years – with other available options in a given location, ranging from broadband to LTE.

In addition to making it easier to add bandwidth in a site, SD-WAN manages prioritization and conditioning of traffic, to improve application performance even further. It also, critically, protects continuity of service through techniques ranging from traffic replication across multiple paths to sub-second cutover of traffic from a failing link to a healthy one.

Already, in Nemertes Research’s 2017 Cloud and Network Benchmark (involving 625 organizations), more than 50 percent of the more successful retailers have begun to deploy SD-WAN; only 10 percent of less successful ones have.

SDN and NFV will power provider services

Service providers leveraging SDN and NFV can develop and deploy (and maintain and improve) new offerings on software rather than hardware timelines. With agile, DevOps approaches, SDN and NFV can mean going from concept to initial offering in a couple of months and with minimal investment, opening the floodgates of innovation.

With SDN and NFV at their core, providers can be more responsive to enterprise needs, making it easier than ever for them to bring value to customers.

You need this in your WAN

SD-WAN, SDN, and NFV, together, create the WAN retailers need to drive all their future initiatives. They make both delivery and consumption of WAN services more economical, flexible, responsive, and agile, and position the enterprise to succeed for the long term.

Visit the AT&T software-defined network services page to learn more about these emerging technologies.