Reliability, Visibility, Control: Improving a Ten-Country Retail Network with Cisco

CISCO

Keeping up with customers is a big challenge for retail. From product preferences to purchase methods to loyalty programs, customer expectations change quickly. Retailers who don’t rise to the challenge and meet those expectations will swiftly fade into obscurity.


Even though online shopping has taken off in recent years, people still love the in-store buying experience as much as they did before. The difference today is that shoppers expect the in-store experience to be just as quick and easy as online shopping. However, poor internet connections can stand in the way.


Cyrillus Vertbaudet Group specializes in the design, distribution, and sale of clothing and accessories for children and families. Based in France, we employ approximately 1,200 people, have three warehouses, and have revenues of around 400€ million. Our brands Cyrillus and Vertbaudet are available through 16 e-commerce sites, two mobile applications, four mobile sites, and 150 physical points of sale in 10 countries throughout Europe. Those stores are the first point of contact for many customers, but they also used to bear the brunt of poor connectivity issues. 

Lost Connectivity + Mounting Costs = A New Solution

As Technical Director, one of my primary responsibilities is to oversee our network infrastructure, and our poor connectivity had a significant impact on business. Our main issue with connectivity was disconnections. All our sites used to be connected by two MPLS networks: One network for our warehouses and some subsidiaries in Switzerland, Portugal, and Spain, and the other network for our stores. Our HQ connected both MPLS networks, acting as an exchange between stores and our data center. My team at Cyrillus Vertbaudet had to manage both networks, which became quite frustrating because we used multiple service providers. Whenever we had to troubleshoot an issue, we had to sort through numerous contacts and various processes.

Maintaining multiple networks with multiple vendors is costly and makes troubleshooting frustrating.


Unfortunately, we had to make these calls fairly frequently, as stability was also an issue. The MPLS network to our stores were not stable, and links could be degraded or cut, resulting in outages that lasted anywhere from a few hours to a few days. Store employees would get upset, and understandably so. When the link was unstable, our application was unstable, so they couldn’t work until we resolved the outage. And if they couldn’t work, customers couldn’t buy.


Maintaining multiple networks also came at a cost. We worked with Verizon for many of the connections, and these costs continued to increase over time. These issues compounded, and finally, in 2019, we began to reflect on what we could do to unify our endpoints, simplify our structure, increase our reliability, and reduce costs.

A Small Team Turns to Trusted Partners

Finding a solution that could cover all these metrics proved complicated, especially since my team is small—just two people working full time—so we don’t have the skills or time to learn the ins and outs of the latest technology. Instead, we rely on the experts at 6hat for advice. 


6hat is an IT and engineering firm that specializes in networking and security. Our relationship with the founder of 6hat goes back ten years. He worked with us as a network specialist on a joint venture. We worked well together and have stayed in close touch ever since. When we needed a second opinion, 6hat has always been there to offer occasional advice and suggest solutions and services.

 

Over the years, 6hat has come to understand our business and how we work. For our predicament, they recommended we try Cisco Meraki for its cloud-based Wi-Fi, routing, and security features. We also considered the FortiGate solution from Orange.

If your small team lacks skills or time to implement the latest solutions, work with a technology partner to steer you in the right direction.


We moved forward with a PoC based at a single store that experienced the most trouble with the MPLS. Cisco Meraki also sent us an MX Firewall to try. Throughout the PoC, Meraki was the clear winner and stood out for its ease of management and intuitive dashboard. We asked the local provider, Orange, to provide a 4G backup line. That way, if we ever encountered trouble with the main line, my team could flip to the backup. This solution was initially used in case a failure with the MPLS network occurred before the complete migration. 


That solution solved one area of our predicament, but we also had control issues. With MPLS, our many different providers controlled the network. For example, if we wanted to change some firewall routes, we had to wait for the provider to make the change. 6hat introduced us to Cisco Meraki SD-WAN, which would give us complete control over our new, singular network. Using SD-WAN would reduce the time between making and then implementing a decision. We also wouldn’t need to develop a lot of network-specific knowledge to make the changes we wanted.

An Easy and Automated Rollout

Choosing Meraki and SD-WAN was an easy decision, and so was keeping 6hat on board for the deployment. They handled everything, and because of that, the transition was smooth and easy for my team. First, we switched the links between HQ and the data centers. We then moved onto the warehouses, and finally the subsidiaries in other countries. 6hat used a Python script to automate this process. 


The largest component of the deployment was switching the stores. My store support manager was vital in our project and worked with Orange to deliver the store links, with 4G Backup. When links were installed on stores, prepackaged kits containing a MX and cables were sent to the stores. The only thing left to do in store was to replace the MPLS router with the MX on the new ISP link. The support team then just had to launch a second python script provided by 6hat to finalize configuration with Cisco Meraki  API and local routing. We also used this process for popup stores that needed a connection for a short time. 


In addition to our MPLS issues, we had a very old proxy solution that had become problematic. We used a virtual machine (VM) that managed rules, but it was out of date and difficult to link with all the workstations. 6hat proposed we give Umbrella a try due to its DNS forwarding capabilities. We ended up adopting it for all our 1,000 user workstations. 

Reduced Costs, Time, Difficulty, and Stress

A big reason for our move to Meraki was to reduce costs, and in that, we have seen impressive results. We went from spending 410,000€ per year to 260,000€ per year. Meraki has been beneficial for our IT budget. 


Before, we averaged 15 network-related incidents each month. Now, there might be one. By relying on local ISPs, we also have better bandwidth and latency for our retail outlets. The local ISPs are more reliable than our MPLS connections, with only two or three disconnections per year versus two or three disconnections per month. And even when we experience a disconnection, we can rely on the 4G backup lines, so an outage doesn’t affect the end users at our retail locations. As a result, our stores can operate more consistently and reliably.


Before, when we didn’t have control over the routers, we had to wait four to five weeks for a provider to build a link to a store. We had to open a ticket and synchronize between the technician, our IT team, and the store—all of which often took longer than the deadline given by our head office. Now that we no longer rely on an MPLS provider to make these changes, we’ve reduced the time to link endpoints to an hour or less. We have much more autonomy and control. 

Having a complete view of the network means IT teams can address problems proactively rather than wait for complaints.


6hat used Meraki templates so we can easily add and remove stores directly from the dashboard. They also trained our support team to spot latency trouble or packet loss in the dashboard, where we have a comprehensive view of all the stores. That way, we can anticipate when a store is running into trouble and proactively reach out to them, rather than waiting for the store to call us to complain. 

Making Room for Other Projects

The time and money saved allow us to allocate more resources to other big projects, such as moving from our custom ERP to SAP and migrating to Azure. Since moving to Meraki, my team’s day-to-day duties have been less stressful. We have fewer complaints, and we no longer dread coming to work or dealing with outages. We are so impressed with these Cisco solutions that we are looking into replacing all our switches and access points with Meraki by the end of 2022. 


I have no regrets about this project—apart from not reaching out to 6hat sooner. Adopting Cisco Meraki, SD-WAN, and Umbrella has given my team more reliability, visibility, and control of the Cyrillus Vertbaudet network. That improves the in-store experience for our users, our customers, and those of us who control it all.