Improving Store Wireless Networks – Wes Wilson, Foundations IT
Does your wireless store network have wires?
Brick and mortar retailers are being pressed ever harder to compete with online retail; yet the models are vastly different. Mistakes in store technology are much harder to remedy because of the long equipment life cycle and multiplying effect of making the investment (right or wrong) in many stores. This is why a sound technology strategy is more important than ever when making store technology investments. At most retailers, the wireless network design evolved from the wired network design by installing cabled access points to provide coverage. Retailers who carry forward this design without reassessing their technology strategy run a significant risk of having higher support, maintenance, and equipment costs than their peers. On a recent mall trip, I watched technicians pulling cable for new access points and wondered why this retailer’s wireless network still had wires. Was it by design? Or by mistake?
Hubs & Spokes
Most homes, offices, and stores use what’s called a hub and spoke architecture where every device on the network is cabled back to a central location. This design has the advantage of being simple, straightforward, proven, and well understood. Naturally, when retailers began deploying wireless networks into stores they took this model and extended the architecture to wireless by physically connecting wireless access points back to the central location. However, despite being quick and easy, this approach carries hidden costs for the unwary retailer.
First, the nature of wireless is to be dynamic and moving or adding access points is a normal practice. However, with each physically wired access point, moving or adding an access point requires a visit from a cabling technician. Then, every cable to an access point represents a point of failure. If any cable to any access point is broken or becomes defective, the access point loses connectivity and a wireless dead spot forms in the store. In large format stores, distance also becomes an obstacle with wiring closets and other intermediate equipment needed for long cable runs. Lastly, every access point requires a port on central equipment (hub, switch, router, etc) and in a large store this can total to a very high percentage of the ports in use. All combined, using a hub and spoke design for wireless access points is a solution that works but is also fragile, requires technicians to make basic changes, and incurs substantial overhead on cabling, central equipment, and hardware maintenance that can be avoided through more strategic designs.
Designing wireless, without wires
Wireless mesh is an alternate network design where the devices on a network connect directly to their neighbors over the air. This differs from hub and spoke where each device connects back to one central place with a wire. With wireless mesh, each device connects to its nearest neighbors and then traffic is forwarded from device to device over the air until it gets back to the central location or to the nearest device with a wired connection. A handful of access points will have both a wired and wireless connection so that data can leave the wireless mesh and move into the wired network, but there’s no longer a 1-1 connection between wires and access points.
With mesh, extending coverage requires little more than powering on a new access point within range of an existing access point. The access point connects into the existing network and adds its own wireless coverage to the mesh thereby extending the entire network. Single points of failure are reduced or eliminated. If one of the wired access points has a cable break, then the data shifts over to a different wired access point and the same holds true if a port fails on the central equipment. Distance limitations are significantly mitigated as access points will forward data from one to another well beyond traditional network cable length limitations. Maintenance and operation are much simpler too as store staff can plug in or move around existing access points to address coverage issues without the need for a cable technician.
The biggest improvement though for retailers, by far, is that the growth of costs on the central equipment is decoupled from the growth of the number of access points deployed. Consider, with a hub and spoke design, blanketing a large footprint store with wireless might have required 100 access points, 100 cable runs, and 100 ports at the central hub while with a wireless mesh design that same store might require 100 access points, 10 cable runs, and 10 ports at the central hub. This point alone is compelling for many retailers who have run out of open ports on their store network equipment, allowing the deferral of potentially millions of dollars in capital investments.
Strategize for the future
Digital commerce is going to push traditional retailers harder making it ever more critical to make smart store technology investments. Mesh provides a wireless network architecture that can be more scalable, more resilient to failure, and more adaptive to business needs than the hub and spoke architecture used for years by retailers. It also brings new opportunities to address wireless coverage challenges and interference issues which are prevalent in the modern retail store. However, the initially higher cost of mesh access points could make them a non-obvious choice unless your strategy is carefully considering the offsets from eliminating central equipment, cabling, and ongoing maintenance costs. Mesh isn’t new, having been used in satellite networks for decades, but the steadily decreasing cost of multi-antenna devices have put this technology within reach of your retail technology strategy. Wireless mesh may well be the retail wireless design of the future. Below, in the comments, we’d love to hear your experiences with mesh in the retail environment or if you’re considering mesh for your stores.
Wes Wilson is the founder and CEO of Foundations IT, Inc. His company builds business focused technology strategies, manages complex IT efforts, and works with companies to effectively reduce the cost of their IT operations. If you enjoyed this article, click here to receive future articles directly by email.