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Amplify Your Value.jpgOne of the most dramatic steps we took to becoming a Value-add revenue generating partner was to completely throw out our existing network. Wow! As I write that it sounds a little “harsh”. Let me explain.


Our network ties together over 80 locations in Central Indiana. A year or so before we embarked on our five year plan, we had implemented an MPLS network, most of the 80 locations were connected with a T1.


Our Corporate Headquarters housed our servers, storage and the head-end of our network. Out of that same building, not only did we have corporate operations, but we also ran two charter high schools.


While this was a solid network providing four 9’s of uptime, we were limited. Already our Loss Prevention department wanted to view hi-def video from the stores, but over a 1.5 Mbps pipe viewing those video streams would bring the network to its knees. We certainly couldn’t let them view one store’s video from another store. So...they were locked out from doing so.


We were already streaming music to the stores over the T1; however, we wanted to be able to push a video stream to our TV walls (the area in which TVs for sale were displayed). We were sure we sell more TVs if shoppers could see them in action. Again, we were stymied by the network bandwidth, so we put a DVD player in each store and mailed them a DVD every month.


Forget doing a sales floor digital signage. No way was that going through a 1.5 Mbps needle.


Finally, even though we were on an MPLS network, we were essentially a hub and spoke network, with all of the traffic coming back to corporate before going out to the internet or to another location. If we were going to achieve our vision, if we were going to achieve our company’s vision, we had to find a better way.


Our first step was to sit down with our telecom provider, TWTelecom (now Level3) and put our cards on the table. We could put in bigger pipes but even the T1s were several hundred dollars a month. How could we afford to put 10 or even 20 Mbps pipes in? Believe it or not, the plan we came up with would dramatically reduce their Monthly Recurring Revenue (MRR), but we all agreed it was the right thing to meet our needs. So we embarked on Phase I of our Network Redesign.


Over the course of the next two years, we converted all of our retail locations to business-class cable. I can hear you now, “but what about Quality of Service, you don’t get that with cable!??!” True. But to ensure we had the resiliency we needed, we put Verizon 4G in each store as our failover. In a very real sense, we multiplied our bandwidth over 10 fold, and added a back-up circuit both for 80% LESS a month than the cost of a T1. For our larger sites (E.g. schools, nursing, etc.), we put in larger point-to-point ethernet pipes (when possible fiber-based) with business-class cable as the failover.


The project was drawn out over two years for a variety of reasons. Primarily, we wanted to time the retirement of the existing connection with its renewal. However, we also ran into issues with getting Right of Entry from some of the landlords where our stores resided. We also had one store that was adjacent to a major highway construction project which made it impossible for us to get cable service to the location. When we had finished moving all the other locations, we punted and put in a 10 Mbps point-to-point in that location. In 2017, when the highway is complete we will revisit that store.


As we were nearing the end of Phase I, we kicked of Phase II with the help of our networking partner, Sinewave. Phase II, was to move the head-end of our network out of corporate and into a state of the art, fully compliant, fully certified data center. We chose Lifeline Data Centers. Specifically, we chose their eastside location. The data center was built in the old Eastgate Consumer Mall. This mall, long abandon, had been built as an emergency bomb shelter during the cold war. During the Super Bowl that was held in Indianapolis, Homeland Security used the data center for their command center.


The initial step was to swing all of our connections to Lifeline and land on Sinewave’s stack. This would enable us to reuse some of our existing gear to build out our new fully-redundant stack. Once all of the traffic was successfully running through Lifeline, we swung it to run through our own gear.


As you might imagine, there were some complications with the migration. However, we were quickly able to resolve (with a LOT of help from Sinewave) the issues as they cropped up. Actual downtime to the stores or our schools was minimal. Most of the issues we encountered caused excessive latency in some locations. Once we identified the offending traffic and changed its routing, response times returned to pre-migration levels.


Once the network redesign was complete, we were able to help develop our new prototype retail store, complete with two 90”+ flat panels streaming hi-def content, TV wall content that can now be centrally managed, SIP trunking to the stores to improve the phone systems, and a “Best-Buy-esque” queuing system to speed checkout.


All of this left us with one final step on our journey. If we truly wanted our headquarters to be “just another spoke on the wheel”, we had to do something with all those servers. Next month, Amplify Your Value: Just Another Spoke on the Wheel Part Deux tells the story of moving our production environment to the cloud.


The series, “Amplify Your Value” explores our five year plan to move from an ad hoc reactionary IT department to a Value-add revenue generating partner. #AmplifyYourValue


Author’s note: In the interest of full transparency. To paraphrase the old Remington Shaver commercial from the 70’s, “I like it so much, I joined the company”. In October of this year, I left Goodwill to join Bluelock as the EVP of Product and Service Development. My vision is to help other companies experience the impact Goodwill has felt through this partnership.


We could not have made this journey without the support of several partners, including, but not limited to: Bluelock, Level 3 (TWTelecom), Lifeline Data Centers, Netfor, and CDW. (mentions of partner companies should be considered my personal endorsement based on our experience and on our projects and should NOT be considered an endorsement by my company or its affiliates).


Jeffrey Ton is the Executive Vice President of Product and Service Development. He is responsible for driving the company’s product strategy and service vision and strategy. Jeff focuses on the evolving IT landscape and the changing needs of our customers, together with the Bluelock team, ensures our products and services meet our client's needs and drives value in their organizations now and in the future


Find him on LinkedIn.

Follow him on Twitter (@jtonindy)

Check out more of his posts on Intel's IT Peer Network

Read more from Jeff on Rivers of Thought

gp-440x220-big-data.jpg

Here’s the truth about big data: it’s a means to an end, not the end in itself.

 

Big data is nothing more than a huge collection of bits and bytes. It is only when you are able to analyse it, and gain some value from it, that it is actually of any use to you in your organization.

 

It is the insights businesses can derive from these bits and bytes of information, such as reducing customer churn to increase loyalty in the telco space, identifying buying trends in retail stores to maximize profitability or product placement, or even running algorithms to predict and mitigate pipeline failures in the oil and gas sector, that hold the promise of significant value.

 

Before we talk about whether the concept of big data has overpromised or under delivered, I believe it is critical to remember this one point: Big data is not about the information being collected, it’s about how businesses can transform that information to speed decision making.

 

One of the first decisions a company looking to start a big data initiative will inevitably face revolves around what data exists and how much data to keep.  Applying too many filters and narrowing down your raw data too early may be detrimental down the road.  Let’s say a few years from today, you need to investigate a very specific buying pattern.  You then discover the information you were wanting to investigate isn’t there because it was thrown away (or filtered out) years ago.  That lost data could have helped you derive important insights.

 

In reality, you can solve data storage concerns in an economical manner, but it’s equally important to contrast the storage costs against the value you could realize from some of this data.  And since businesses are continually evolving, it is very difficult to pinpoint what will or won’t be relevant into the future.  Investing in more storage will be less expensive in the long run than missing out on an opportunity that could be uncovered through future data analysis.

 

With companies starting to collect this big lake of data, how do you jump into the deep end without drowning in random details?

 

The short answer is partnership. Bringing together the right people can help you take that lake of data and extract the droplets of critical information that can help you to identify trends or reshape aspects of your business.  If you don’t have the internal expertise to derive the insights you need from the information you are collecting, seek help.

 

I believe partnerships are a business reality of the future and a business model we will see play out in many different forms as companies strive to be more competitive, bring new services to market and respond dynamically to changing customer demands. Businesses, particularly SMBs who form a large percentage of the Canadian economy, may struggle to develop internal skills in all the areas that are becoming mission critical including security, big data analytics, cloud computing and the Internet of Things.

 

Best in class partnerships can give smaller companies a leg up, give them access to much-needed expert resources and help them progress more rapidly along the path of extracting meaningful information from a lake of data.


Go big or go home

 

If there’s one downfall to big data initiatives in many organizations it is that they’re too small. Quite often, big data projects are launched by the IT department as a bit of an experiment; a trial of how data can be collected and used.  This narrow view is precisely why they will fail. 

 

To be a truly useful process, lines of business, sales, marketing, and departmental leadership teams  need to brainstorm with IT on areas where having deeper insights could help radically benefit the business. For example, knowing why customers behave in specific ways, purchasing patterns that secure or lose the sale or even what communications methods keep customers engaged with us.  There should be a clear business proposition, established at the outset, for big data project that goes beyond an IT-driven initiative. 

You need to think big about the opportunity this could present to transform your business by leveraging the insights locked away in your data.

 

It might be a scary proposition for some.  There is an enormous amount of information out there and the prospect of trying to analyse and understand it all could be daunting, but I would argue we’re reaching a stage where to stay progressive, businesses don’t have a choice. Businesses today have three options: You can sit on your hands and enjoy the fruits of your labour changing nothing around your business (and hope nothing new appears to challenge your stagnant offer), you can drive change yourself, or you can wait for someone else to come along and change your business for you (which may leave you on your back foot trying to catch up or going out of business).

 

I’ve always believed in controlling the future so I guess you could say I like to be in the driver’s seat where change is concerned. The best time to drive change in your business is when you are successful as opposed to when you are under competitive threats and your business model is being challenged. 

 

When you are talking about big data analytics, the information revealed can be truly transformative for the company willing and able to gain those insights.  The technology is available; the only barrier is a willingness to begin. Investing in big data is not a prohibitively expensive activity as long as you couple the initiative with clear objectives and an eye on areas where your future business success could derive benefit from deeper insights.

 

Imagine as a telecommunication company, you can see the patterns leading up to customer churn and can take action to identify then intervene before customers make the decision to move to another carrier.  That could be very valuable to a business.  Or if in the pipeline industry, they can analyse sensor readings and identify the patterns that signal pipeline failures so they could initiate maintenance or shut down processes sooner to reduce spill risks.  In the financial sector, credit card companies have done a lot of work to identify fraud but refining purchase pattern recognition could further mitigate the huge losses facing this industry.

 

We have a unique ‘made in Canada’ example of big data at work, and it’s in the agricultural sector. GrowSafe Systems Ltd. has developed a solution that helps producers track and analyse livestock data to maximize growth, but also identify potential health issues sooner so they can treat the animal faster.

 

All these examples have one thing in common, it’s not about what or how much information is being collected; it is about the insights derived from that data.

 

We are really at the tip of the iceberg. The amount of data we will be gaining access to is growing exponentially through the increased adoption of wearable devices, internet of things and the evolution of technology that is enabling us to collect more raw data. The opportunities are boundless for where this data, if we can tap into its insights, can lead us.