In my work with enterprise customers, I find the most common problem facing the digital transformation of retail, restaurant, and other industries is the inability to achieve consistent point-of-sale (POS) transactions and other cloud application performance over low-speed broadband connections. It is common because almost everyone is turning to the cloud as a critical component of their digital transformation strategy. It is also common because despite substantial, continuous improvements in North American infrastructure over the past decades, large distributed enterprises are still reliant on low speed connections over substantial portions of their networks.
A casual dining CIO once shared his story with me, he said, “Tim, we had this one restaurant, where the only connection available was a 3-Mb/s DSL circuit. After we completed our POS upgrade, it was very inconsistent. Sometimes it would work great, but sometimes it would take 20 seconds, 30 seconds, 40 seconds, or longer. The customers and the employees hated it.”
The reason this dilemma is getting so much attention is that the whole point of most digital transformation initiatives is to positively transform the customer’s in-store experience. Slow application performance, whether it be on the customer’s mobile device or the employee’s POS, ruins the experience. Both customer and employee have the same human response. They get frustrated. They stop using the applications. Even worse, they leave.
Some might ask, “What’s the big deal? POS transactions are very light data loads. Just prioritize your POS traffic over everything else and done.” Many others would quickly respond, “We did that and it didn’t work.”
The problem is that prioritization policies only impact how data enters the network. Prioritization policies have no say over how data travels across the network. Once a data packet enters a broadband network, every packet is equal. As a result, during times of network congestion, every packet has an equal chance of being dropped. When packets are dropped, they have to be retransmitted. When packets are retransmitted, POS transactions and loyalty app functions take longer to complete.
How can enterprise customers achieve consistent POS transactions and ensure the performance of other cloud-based applications over low-speed broadband connections? One solution is to regulate the flow of data to fit into the available network capacity. Where prioritization only addresses how packets may enter a network, this approach monitors the broadband network for its available capacity and then responds by shaping the data traffic to fit into the network.
Think about your broadband connection at home. Nobody gets to tell the internet, “Give me 15 Mb/s or give me 10 Mb/s. ”The internet will give you whatever it can give you. If you attempt to send 15 Mb/s of traffic through 10 Mb/s pipe, the excess data likely will get dropped. The trick is to know when the internet only has 10 Mb/s and then send 10 Mb/s. Similarly, you also want to know when the internet has 25 Mb/s and then send 25 Mb/s. You must shape your traffic to fit the immediate capacity of the pipe. The optimal customer experience requires using every bit of volume that is available.
SD-WAN Solutions for Low-Speed Broadband
SD-WAN services on the market today vary wildly in their ability to cope with congested broadband circuits. The ideal solution will have the ability to:
- Accurately gauge the available network capacity
- Automatically assign all data to prioritization queues
- Dynamically shape the data flow to fit the available network capacity
Some SD-WAN services have no ability to detect available capacity, and thus are only able to shift traffic from one circuit to a second circuit when high latency or packet loss is detected. In situations where both circuits are congested, the customer will still suffer a miserable user experience.
Other SD-WANs have a very crude ability to gauge network capacity (e.g. they check every X seconds), while others have a very aggressive ability (e.g. they check X times per second).
Businesses should test the limits of their current SD-WAN solution and determine whether it is future-proof. Upgrading to the right SD-WAN solution can elevate a network to handle the increasing demands of the digital era.