Always On Broadband

Dec. 1, 2001
For years, multi-store rental firms have struggled with the problem of how to share inventory availability and critical management information with each

For years, multi-store rental firms have struggled with the problem of how to share inventory availability and critical management information with each location in order to maximize equipment allocation and centralize administrative and accounting functions.

Usually, this has entailed connecting their stores' computer systems in real time, using telephone services or providing information in batch to corporate headquarters. If remote stores share the same local calling area with the corporate location, then toll-free dial-up phone services are used to connect to corporate headquarters. If the remote stores are not within the same calling area, then telephony equipment and dedicated phone services such as frame relay and digital leased lines are used to connect these far-flung operations in real time. And lastly, if real time connectivity options are too expensive, separate computer networks are installed at each location and information is shared in batch, either electronically or in paper format.

Today, a more efficient and cost-effective option is available for multi-store operations. New Web-based network infrastructures allow remote locations and workers to access the corporate network using the Internet. With a PC or Windows terminal and a fast connection to the Web, remote locations can access the network anytime, anywhere.

Web-based networks use broadband (i.e. high-speed) Internet services to connect stores instead of specialized phone services. With Web-based systems, network equipment replaces old style telephony equipment, ensuring the security and privacy of your company's data. Of course, multi-store operations that can use local dial-up lines won't find a Web-based network to be less expensive than their current setup. But newer, graphics-intensive software easily overwhelms the limited speeds of a standard phone line. So, unless you're happy using older character-based software and have no plans to upgrade in the future, you'll need to consider an alternative way to connect your stores sooner or later.

Web-based networks are more cost-effective than specialized phone services for several reasons. First, the initial hardware and setup investment, although not insignificant for either option, is lower for Web-based networks. But more importantly, ongoing monthly fees for high-speed Internet connections are significantly less expensive than digital leased line or frame relay connections. Therefore, over time, a Web-based network can save a corporation thousands of dollars annually.

Because ongoing costs for Web-based networks are significantly less than for older technologies, multi-store connectivity is now affordable for smaller chains that couldn't justify the expense before. These companies will reap the many benefits of centralization.

On the technical side, they will benefit from a decrease in expenses associated with supporting several independent networks, including routine maintenance, hardware and software upgrades, and troubleshooting of technical problems. On the management side, organizations will benefit from the centralization of strategic management information and accounting functions. For example, real-time access to equipment availability across the organization's fleet boosts utilization rates and increases profits. And centralized customer account information allows for better credit control and more efficient billing practices. These are just a few of the many advantages of a centralized information system versus discreet systems in remote locations.

Broadband is paving the way

“Always on” broadband (i.e. high-speed) Internet access has paved the way for the development of these new Web-based networks. Using the Internet as the backbone of your corporate network provides two major advantages. First, Web-based networks can utilize any of the broadband Internet services available both now and in the future. As connection speeds increase, so will your network. Secondly, because users access your network using a standard Web browser, any Internet-enabled device can theoretically be used to access your network. Traditionally, this has meant a PC. But in the future, your network may be designed to allow you to flip open your mobile phone to view today's bank deposit or review last month's equipment utilization rates.

As broadband matures over the next few years, Web-based networks will benefit from the technologies evolving to meet the overwhelming demand for fast access to the Web. Today, cable TV companies have leveraged their infrastructure to provide fast access to the Internet. DSL (digital subscriber line) service, whereby existing copper wire phone lines are used to provide high-speed Internet access, is expanding rapidly. However, these services may eventually be eclipsed by satellite and wireless services. Pundits predict that eventually wireless Web access will be as ubiquitous and transparent in our society as electricity is today.

Of course, current DSL and cable broadband technology is still evolving and far from perfect. Infrastructure upgrades necessary to provide DSL haven't kept pace with the incredible demand for broadband service — thus only a fraction of those wishing to take advantage of DSL have access to the service. And while cable is currently serving more users than DSL in the United States, bandwidth limitations have slowed connections and forced providers to limit upstream transmission rates (the speed at which data is transmitted from a user's computer to the Internet) in some areas.

Satellite broadband services are increasingly popular in rural areas and are projected to be used by 2.4 million users in the U.S. by 2004, according to the Gartner Group. But slow upstream speeds prohibit their use for Web-based networks. When the upstream speed issue is solved by dual-transmission satellite systems projected to be on-line in the next five years, satellite services may take off. In the meantime, wireless broadband has arrived — albeit to a limited few — and will be a huge player in the years to come.

Of all the technical requirements needed to set up a Web-based network, the selection and implementation of broadband Internet access is certainly one of the more difficult hurdles to overcome. Broadband providers advertise the speeds their services are capable of versus what you're likely to get on a day-to-day basis. Periods of heavy demand can also slow down connections. And, of course, stories of DSL and cable installations gone terribly awry are easy to come by. A studied, careful approach to the selection and implementation of broadband services is crucial to the success of setting up a Web-based network that will satisfy your organization's expectations.

Network access options

Older telephony services such as frame relay and digital leased lines are point-to-point connections — that is, you pay to have a secure, dedicated connection from one point to another. With a Web-based network, you can access your corporate server from any place in the world — as long as you have an Internet-enabled device and a fast connection. The implications are vast. Salespeople on the road can connect to your network using wireless broadband and process orders directly from a jobsite. Even if you are 5,000 miles away attending a conference or on holiday, if you can find a fast connection to the Internet, you can log onto your network and find out if payroll deposits were made on time.

In addition to anytime, anywhere access, Web-based networks allow you to deploy user workstations that have a lower cost of ownership than traditional PCs and also provide more control over employee access to the Internet. Windows terminals in particular are a good workstation choice. These devices consist of a standard PC monitor, keyboard, and a small, flat box “terminal” with hardwired Web browsing capability built-in. These devices cost less than $800. Windows terminals can be used to access the corporate network's rental-specific software as well as other server-based office productivity software. They can also be used to surf the Web — but only through a connection controlled by your own network administration.

Of course, some users will prefer to have a PC or laptop on their desk. But for those who primarily need access to rental-specific software and other server-based applications such as e-mail, a Windows terminal is an excellent choice. Long-term reductions in the cost of purchasing, maintaining and upgrading PCs, as well as purchasing PC-based software applications, make the Windows terminal a cost-effective alternative to a PC for many workers.

A case study

So how does all this “gee whiz” technology work out in real life? Recently, my company installed a Web-based network for a major regional rental company. The rental company wanted to jettison its outdated remote store hardware, avoid the expense of implementing PCs at every workstation, and reduce telephony charges it was incurring to connect its remote locations to the corporate office.

A variety of broadband services were selected, including a DSL-T1 line (a super high-speed DSL Internet connection) for the corporate headquarters, DSL lines for some remote locations, and ISDN lines for locations for which DSL was not available. (ISDN is an older technology in which two 64Kbps phone lines are joined to provide a 128Kbps connection.)

The decision to implement Web-based network hardware and Internet-based connections versus relying on older dedicated telephony equipment and phone lines saved the company thousands of dollars in implementation costs. Ongoing savings in monthly connectivity fees are also substantial. The Web-based network also provides significant performance gains in connection speed over older technologies.

During the installation-testing phase, we found that running processor-intensive network applications on a Windows terminal (such as MS-Office products) requires a minimum connection speed of 256Kbps. While “business-level” synchronous DSL service provides enough speed to handle this requirement, the more popular “residential” asynchronous DSL (ADSL) service was generally not up to the task.

However, we did find that 128Kbps ISDN connections were sufficient for remote offices whose primary objective is to connect to the corporate server to run rental software. Because many workers in remote locations are focused primarily on handling rental transactions (versus more office-oriented work like building spreadsheets), the use of ISDN lines was an acceptable solution for the remote locations.

The selection of Windows terminals over PCs saved the company thousands of dollars of initial hardware expense, and will save the company thousands of dollars every year in maintenance and upgrade costs.

Is a Web-based network in your future? Certainly there are hurdles to be overcome in implementing broadband technology — and we're looking forward to more choices, faster connection speeds, and greater overall stability in the future. However, if your company can secure the right broadband services at each remote location, the cost-effectiveness of a Web-based network is unbeatable.

Bill Veneris is president of ALERT-IMS, Colorado Springs, Colo.