Reinventing the Wheel: Overhauling Network Infrastructure for a New Age of Services
Service stations provide more than just fuel for a vehicle. People on a long-distance trip may see them as safe havens where weary travellers can stretch their legs or communicate their expected arrival times. Stations in populated areas may serve as places to grab a quick snack or a cool drink. Facilities in rural areas can have an even more important role in the community. With few other options around, the local service station can become a place to catch up with friends.
Modern service stations are many things to many people, and they require a network infrastructure that can support various use cases. Since these facilities are usually managed by a small staff, they also require ease of management that can respond to various needs.
A Dated Setup That Couldn’t Meet Our Growing Needs
Headquartered in Lisbon, Portugal, Galp Energia is a multinational energy corporation serving as an umbrella of a multitude of companies. We provide products and services in nearly every aspect of the industry, including refining, trading, logistics, and retail. We have more than 6,300 employees operating approximately 1,500 service stations in countries like Portugal and Spain. Until 2019, our technology infrastructure was incredibly limited. From a practical standpoint, our facilities simply could not meet the growing need for data and applications.
Technology became a huge barrier to our growth. Modern applications and equipment often required Wi-Fi connections that we did not have in our service stations. In places where we did have Wi-Fi, our customers and staff were using the same network. We considered cloud technologies or data center platforms, but our local facilities often lacked reliable high-speed internet connections.
We had a choice: either fall behind our competitors and lose touch with our customers or face a huge technology overhaul. We chose to press forward.
Why We Needed to Digitally Transform
Galp had already committed to a larger digital transformation initiative, I was brought in three years ago, and asked to be an important piece to lead that change. I arrived in the position with experience with such large-scale overhauls in other industries, expected to become a source for best practice insights.
Fortunately, Galp leadership challenged my team and I to transform the technology, techniques, and human approaches to our operations. In part because Galp had not invested in technology for several years, the company knew it was past time for a reinvention. We had the full support of my manager and the company executives. They wanted to grow and knew we were held back by the infrastructure.
Part of the impetus for the change was the desire to become a data-driven company. The executives wanted to optimize, standardize, and simplify operations to realize savings from greater efficiency. They were also looking for ways to connect service stations to data centers to allow near real-time analysis on the customer experience. However, they realized that none of this was possible as long as individual stores had haphazard internet connections.
The company had three main motivations regarding this project. First, we wanted to improve the customer experience. It is true that our local facilities primarily sold gas, but we knew that they could mean much more to our customers. We wanted to increase the percentage of revenue that came from purchases inside the store to more than 50%.
But getting customers inside the store required a better understanding of the products and services they desired. That meant developing a better infrastructure to gather insights into foot traffic from video analytics. Real-time data center connections were necessary to analyze purchases and customer preferences.
The second motivation was improving our operation. We wanted to create and support different user profiles based on elements such as geographic distribution. People who stop at a station for a meal may want better Wi-Fi so they can work while there. Our employees also needed separate connections with enough bandwidth to work within corporate applications.
The needs of our customers and staff often changed according to where they were located. Rural customers who spent lots of time at isolated stores required a different network experience than those at busy urban locations. Obviously, people who stop in for a few seconds need less connectivity than those who stay longer. We wanted to have internet at every service station to break out guest Wi-Fi traffic locally without requiring it to go through our own infrastructure. We also needed to monitor these connections from centralized locations, instead of waiting for local staff to discover problems and call us with complaints.
The third motivation was quite simply to move to a more robust and stable technology platform that could support a distributed wide area network (WAN). Many of the innovations we were examining for the future, such as cashless registers, would require such an infrastructure. We needed an architecture that could be flexible and agile enough to meet our lofty ambitions.
Creating a Legendary Partnership Trio
One of the bravest decisions we made was to decide immediately that we would not settle for the next step up. Without a significant investment in decades, it was easy to just start buying the next highest version of the equipment we already owned. Galp chose to skip ahead and find the best possible solution.
When we first began looking at our options, our technology partners were initially surprised to hear that we were interested in SD-WAN because we had earned the reputation for being conservative when it came to technology. The idea that we were willing to create this hugely distributed infrastructure for our service stations was unheard of in Europe. There were no other examples and no models for an overhaul of this nature.
That created an extra challenge at nearly every phase of the project. Again, this uncertainty could have caused us to become reluctant or conservative in our choices. We decided to continue to push ahead by selecting the best technology available from some of the largest vendors in the world.
After some research, we chose to use a team from Logicalis Portugal to handle the implementation. European telecom vendor Vodafone was selected to provide the technology for the infrastructure. Finally, Cisco was the partner we chose for SD-WAN and Wireless connectivity. Each of these vendors has international experience and a vested interest in being part of a working vision for our company. The last thing we needed was for our overhaul to get bogged down in personality and management issues.
Aside from choosing the broad strokes of the plan, getting the infrastructure specifics right is important to help us gain visibility into all our service stations. Part of the reason we chose Cisco is that we were so impressed with Cisco SD-WAN, along with Cisco DNA Spaces and Cisco DNA Center. They were critical to establishing a cloud-based platform from which to host a wide variety of applications.
Why a Secure, Cloud-Based Strategy Needs SD-WAN
Approaching a new form of network connectivity to make accessing cloud applications more efficient through the internet is one of the fundamental processes in the digital transformation. SaaS and other cloud-based apps are designed to be much more agile, but to be effective, it needs a modern Internet-centric networking solution: SD-WAN.
SD-WAN allows us to interface directly with the internet at every site and provide the flexibility to deploy different types of WAN connections and simplify operations. SD-WAN allows Galp to connect all our offices to our cloud-hosted infrastructures, which gives us more control and flexibility. By measuring network traffic and then selecting the best route for each data pack in real-time, SD-WAN also helps us create operational efficiencies.
A major benefit of SD-WANs over traditional WANs is the level of visibility into the network. Through Cisco SD-WAN vManage, our network administrators can monitor traffic for inconsistencies, ensure applications are performing efficiently, troubleshoot network problems, and check that security elements and policies are running correctly.
SD-WAN security is based largely on the use of IP security (IPsec), VPN tunnels, next-generation firewalls (NGFWs), and the micro segmentation of application traffic. Cisco SD-WAN uses NGF, a virtualized version of traditional hardware-based firewalls, runs multiple virtual network functions such as intrusion detection and prevention, URL and web content filtering, malware detection, and antivirus protection. All of this runs locally at each site.
By allowing centralized management and full orchestration of resources at scale, SD-WAN gives us the global consistency that we haven't had before when using traditional WAN. This also offers us flexibility and agility in a way that allows our business to accommodate traffic of all kinds without compromising the overall performance of the network.
Creating a Great User Experience
Based on our plan for the first stages, we launched a $10+ million project, including $3.4 million of Cisco hardware and software, covering 1,200 sites. Each facility has a Cisco Integrated Services Router (ISR) C1111X-8P running Cisco SD-WAN, and Cisco Catalyst 9115 Wi-Fi 6 access points have been deployed in 670 locations. Cisco SD-WAN and Cisco DNA Center remote deployment and management capabilities means that technical staff do not need to be on-site at each location. WAN Management is handled via Cisco SD-WAN vManage and the branch wireless networks is handled via Cisco DNA Center. Cisco DNA Spaces then additionally offers sophisticated visibility and management of the wireless utilization.
We started with three service station typologies and created a configuration plan for each. There was considerable testing of these models to ensure that they could stand up to real-world scrutiny. In total, we spent about four months in behind-the-scenes planning before moving forward with implementing three stations of each kind. These were then tested and any problems addressed.
We managed to get the project done on time and under budget. That was especially impressive given it occurred when the pandemic started. There were lots of challenges related to managing the risk of getting people to work together on-site for infrastructure changes, such as how do you work closely together without breaking COVID-19 physical distancing or indoor crowding rules. But our teams persevered.
Although we are still working to optimize the network, we have already seen some cost savings, since our SD-WAN doesn’t rely on dedicated MPLS corporate circuits. We’ve also gained resilience as the capacity of each connection doubled. We now use fiber connectivity, and have the ability to deliver multiple services. Most locations are now able to offer application data and Wi-Fi for employees and clients, in addition to ongoing flexibility.
A Cloud Strategy for the Ages
Despite our initial hesitancy, my team has proven that success is possible with the right technology and partners. Galp may be a big fish in Portugal, but we are still a small company globally. It was a great comfort to experience Cisco, Logicalis and Vodafone's dedication and attention, and we envision this network as just one step on our path to AI operations, cybersecurity, and actionable insights.
Galp's business is very much related to customer behavior. We need to see inside our gas stations to understand our customer relationships and improve the customer experience. Using an integrated approach with Cisco SD-WAN, Cisco DNA Spaces, and Cisco DNA Center, we’ve gained more information about the interests of our customers based on their presence and purchases. This information has led to an increase in sales and a better understanding of how to enhance our service stations as a retail network for Galp's product universe. Because these stations use resilient technologies for connectivity and offer real-time visualizations, we are developing better business strategies and avoiding potential pitfalls.
We’ve created a truly intelligent network with the capacity to dynamically adapt to the unique needs of various communities.