How to Manage a Network with a Hundred Locations—Even with a Small IT Team
PlanetHome’s mission is to help people find their dream homes. With 100 branch offices across Germany and Austria, and more than 700 employees working in our real estate and mortgage broker business, we are one of the biggest real estate companies in Germany.
The focus of our business model is a narrow one. Our business model focuses on working closely with banks, insurance companies, and financial service providers to optimally supplement their service offering for their clients
We specialize in broking and financing of residential property. Our specialists help find the right property, and line up the financing so they can make it their home. It’s complicated, detail-oriented work my colleagues do, and supporting them is my team of just 15 in IT Services.
This is why we have so many branches: because our brokers cover all of Germany and we also have branches within various bank offices. With my team working out of our head office in Munich, a reliable network holding our branches together is essential.
The scale of the operation puts high demands on our network. It was a major problem when we ran into network difficulties in the past. Unfortunately, outages were becoming frequent. And since we have centralized IT in Munich, when we had an outage at our head office, it meant all branches went down.
The network is our core that connects all services we offer, so when there’s an outage my colleagues can’t get any work done. Outages often meant employees just went home because there was no way for them to do their work. It was a frustrating experience for both employees and customers.
The root of the problem was our aging infrastructure. While it had served us well in the beginning, our network connection and VPN solution had grown outdated. Even when the network was working, all our branches had low bandwidth. You can imagine how slow browsing affected work.
Each of our branches also had its own hardware, with routers and switches often coming from different vendors. With this setup, our team couldn’t remotely change, debug, or even properly monitor the network configuration in one of our branches. It was painful and time-consuming for my team to manage.
A Cloud-Based Solution That Met Our Needs—But Could Our Staff Pull It Off?
By 2019, our management decided we needed a change. It was time to invest in a new IT infrastructure. We decided on a strategy to standardize our network across all branches, embrace SD-WAN, and move 100% to the cloud. A major deciding factor for SD-WAN was the security element, which is easier to achieve remotely with a cloud-based solution.
Our search began with talks with our existing providers, but it became obvious that they couldn’t provide what we were looking for. No solution they suggested was 100% in the cloud and had some sort of dependency on only one data center. Additionally, the proposed SD-WAN solutions were expensive if we were to go with the providers because the network would be managed by external staff. This also meant it would take a long time to open new branches or to move an existing branch.
If we moved a branch, we would have to make appointments with different external suppliers and place orders. This was getting far away from our ideal of an easily managed cloud-based solution.
That’s when we discovered Cisco Meraki. If it was as simple as they said it was, we could manage it in-house and that would translate into big cost savings. But I had some self-doubts. We are just 15 people. Could we really take on this size of project with our staff? Cisco invited us to a free webinar on Meraki configuration.
When I saw how easy it was, I felt confident we could do this with our stand-alone staff, without the added cost of working with outside help. It would be easy, too, to open or move new locations. I told management this is an all-cloud solution that would allow us to open a new branch in a matter of days.
We started with a proof of concept (PoC) at one branch near Munich—in Augsburg—testing Meraki in parallel with our old equipment. This ended up being a low-cost approach for us, because Meraki actually gave us a free trial including an MX security appliance and MR access points to use for the PoC before asking us to buy.
We immediately noticed more bandwidth. Colleagues started complimenting us on how fast and reliable the Wi-Fi was—something we never heard before. The best part was we could see all the traffic and debug any failures or problems directly with the Meraki dashboard. This was the solution we were looking for.
A Secure, Reliable Network
We’ve recently completed rolling out Meraki to all 100 of our branches. Setting up Meraki at the locations was incredibly simple, as we saw in our PoC. With a standardized system across all branches, we don’t need outside help to manage our network. Automated software updates, configuration guidelines, and the single-pane-of-glass dashboard have replaced the need for external management. Now that we are working entirely with cloud services, if the Munich office ever were to go down, all branches would stay functional.
User experience is better across the board. For PlanetHome employees, they can move from branch to branch, whether they’re in Vienna or Hamburg, with the same authentication on their device. They have the same experience, whichever branch they work from that day. We hear that the Wi-Fi is fast and reliable, and I can tell, because I can monitor it here from Munich.
We can also provide our clients a standardized guest Wi-Fi, which is important for customer experience. And should we ever need to upgrade our location-specific bandwidth, we can do that easily without reconfiguring any devices.
All parts of the network are now secure. The ports on the switches are secure, and only company devices can connect to the switches. If any device goes offline, we receive an instant notification and can react fast, including locking a stolen device if necessary. These tools are incredibly valuable to a small team trying to do so much.
What does this mean for my team? Now that we no longer are spending our time just keeping the network running, we have a lot more time to focus on projects that are core to PlanetHome’s business. Part of our digitization strategy as a company is also a cultural strategy of changing how brokers interact with our customers.
For example, we are just about to release a new platform for our brokers that will allow them to take their brokerage software with them anywhere, on the go. They’re no longer tied to their desk at the branch to access information the way they once were.
The time back for innovation will allow us to unlock a lot of potential for our employees. That, in turn, will see a lot more happy homeowners.