Supercharging the Supermarket Experience with a Cisco SASE Architecture
Grocery shopping should be fast and easy. Going to the store, discovering new products, filling your shopping cart, and checking out. It should be seamless, but it doesn't always happen that way. Ask any shopper, and they'll tell you that the worst part of supermarket shopping are checkout delays or long lines.
There are several reasons why this can happen, but one of the most common causes is poor connectivity. Today's points of sale are not simply cash registers. They are sophisticated networked devices that process credit, debit, and gift card transactions, and feed data to inventory management systems, ERPs, customer loyalty databases, and business analytics platforms, among other functions.
Transforming the Saudi Grocery Business
But that's just the tip of the iceberg. A robust IT backbone is vital in the grocery business. When you're running a 65-location supermarket chain with an online eCommerce presence and multi-region supply chain, you need infrastructure that's fast, reliable and efficient.
I've been with Tamimi Markets for 27 years. We're one of the fastest-growing grocery chains in Saudi Arabia and have been named a Top 100 Saudi brand for the past six years. We are a Saudi company serving the families of Saudi Arabia with an exciting mix of local and international fresh foods, imported brands, and everyday essentials from around the world. We also provide in-store services such as custom cake decorating, artisan breads, brick oven pizza, Grab & Go meals and hot rotisserie chicken. Tamimi Markets is Saudi Arabia's leader in healthy food choices too with our Healthy Living department featuring natural, organic, gluten-free, free from and overall 'Good for You' products.
Tamimi Markets is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Tamimi Group of Companies. Our supermarket chain was originally founded in 1979 as a joint venture with the American grocery giant Safeway. In 2011, we refreshed our image, remodeled our stores and rapidly expanded. The result was a new, modern design that made shopping more appealing, convenient, and fun, and in turn led to exciting customer growth.
Changing with the Times
I started here as a programmer in 1993 and am now the Director of IT. Twenty-seven years ago, my sole focus was individual lines of code, but as I moved up through the ranks, I had to look at the big picture. In recent years, that meant turning my attention to the cloud. The supermarket industry shifted from on-prem applications to cloud-based solutions, and we had to change with the times.
Our WAN was another challenge. Network traffic from our supermarkets, warehouses, branch offices, and remote users were all routed through our head office via three separate ISPs. The only way we could protect our data was via IPSEC over MPLS (IPVPN) tunnels which slowed connectivity and blocked visibility. We couldn't tell, for example, if a marketing manager working from home had proper endpoint protection on their computer. We were also 100% dependent on these three ISPs—who typically didn't talk to one another—for end-to-end connectivity. If one of them slowed down due to network congestion or went offline due to a system failure, we were at their mercy. Stores and offices that used their infrastructure were cut off from our head office and the rest of our network.
We also suffered from a lack of control over the quality of network services or infrastructure upgrades. When we needed new capacity, we added physical equipment at each of our locations. It was costly and the installation and configuration was all manual. After the extra effort and expense, we still had to contend with limited bandwidth from our ISP partners. Essentially, we were employing band-aid solutions as the demands on our network grew. Our overall IT infrastructure had become obsolete and stretched too thin.
The impact of these deficiencies was huge. Our network was slow, poorly secured, and not very visible. In broad terms, our growth and brand image suffered as customers became frustrated with long checkout lines caused by network delays and waiting for their loyalty points to be recognized. Our out-of-date software and slow network connections were impacting our business and reputation.
We needed to upgrade our IT infrastructure and reflect our new and innovative image by improving both service and the total shopping experience. We also needed an IT infrastructure that could keep up with our aggressive growth plans.
Putting out calls for vendors and went through several proofs of concept. At the end of our selection process, one solution stood out: Cisco Secure Access Service Edge (SASE) including Cisco SD-WAN and Cisco Umbrella.
True Branch Independence and More
Cisco SD-WAN allowed us to switch from a traditional network to a software-defined infrastructure. The first and foremost of its benefits is true branch independence through direct internet access. Our stores, warehouses, and offices no longer have to backhaul network traffic through our headquarters to talk to one another, which speeds things up tremendously.
The second advantage is carrier independence. The beauty of an SD-WAN solution is that it frees you to choose whatever public or private infrastructure is most convenient. We are no longer constrained to our three ISPs. We have retooled our setup, and our branches are now connected via a fiber loop. We run broadband on copper (Business DSL) as a backup, 4G for wireless, and eventually 5G. If one of these networks fails, it switches automatically to another. We no longer have to wait for a provider to effect repairs and are assured of connectivity between locations by rerouting it across other infrastructure.
We can also add or change service providers with ease when better options present themselves or if we need more bandwidth. In the past, we had to accept outrageous rate hikes whenever we needed more bandwidth or speed. Now, we are free to shop around and get what we need without adding physical equipment to our network.
Building a Secure Access Service Edge
Cisco SD-WAN is only part of the solution. We are rolling out Cisco Umbrella to secure internet access for our network, branches, and roaming users. Cisco Umbrella was simple to configure and does not require advanced technical expertise. Everything we needed was written in their documentation. Cisco Umbrella gives us full visibility into how remote users are accessing our network. Using the Cisco SD-WAN integration with Cisco Umbrella gives us effective cloud security throughout our SD-WAN fabric. We can now see which devices employees are using to connect to Tamimi Markets' SD-WAN, restrict them to the most secure protocols, and even limit the applications they can use while connected to the network. We’ve never had application visibility like this before. This added security protects our staff from the ever-present threats on the internet.
The secure SD-WAN integration offers the flexibility and security we need to update our IT infrastructure and better serve our customers and employees. I'm a long-time fan of Cisco, and I knew they could deliver the product we needed, but the real difference is their support. With other suppliers, my engineers could spend hours on Google looking for ways to resolve an issue. With Cisco, we open a ticket, and they get back to us in no time. You don't get that level of service from other technology partners.
While we're on the subject of partners, I have to single out Ebttikar Technology Company for their implementation support. Ebttikar was the first regional company to receive Cisco Gold Partner Certification in the Middle East, and their expertise has proved invaluable in helping us deploy our new infrastructure. The company's engineers are working closely with our Infrastructure and Network Manager to roll out Cisco SD-WAN and Cisco Umbrella at all our supermarkets, warehouses, and branch offices.
Improvements Amidst an Ongoing Roll-out
Although COVID-19 slowed the planned deployment of our new infrastructure due to shipping delays and reduced work crews for safety reasons, I've already noticed a tremendous improvement in speed, stability, and bandwidth across all our operations utilizing SD-WAN. Like most companies, we've had to use video conferencing for many of our meetings during the pandemic. In the past, this meant putting up with severe lags that caused garbled sound and stuttering video. It was impossible to communicate clearly or get anything done.
With Cisco SD-WAN, those days are behind us. Our new infrastructure handles video traffic with ease. It has also improved the customer experience for Tamimi Markets shoppers. Our points of sale have a seamless and fast connection to our customer loyalty database and other cloud-based utilities, thus accelerating the checkout process. Our growing customer base no longer has to wait for access to their loyalty points and paying for their purchases is much faster.
Supercharging Tamimi Markets' Future
I'm thrilled with the many improvements we've made by choosing Cisco for our SASE architecture. Tamimi Markets is a forward-looking company that has transformed the way people shop for their groceries in Saudi Arabia. We have supercharged the supermarket experience and have become one of the most beloved brands in the Kingdom by embracing the latest food trends, retail services, and IT innovations. I wish we had transitioned to Cisco SD-WAN sooner. Everything works so much better now.
Tamimi Markets has experienced tremendous growth over the past decade. Our new Cisco infrastructure will help us keep pace with our aggressive growth plans. While it may be invisible to shoppers, our secure SD-WAN will accelerate checkout times. With Cisco SD-WAN and Cisco Umbrella, combining to form a true SASE solution, we have achieved direct-to-internet access which helps us propel inventory management and other processes that put food on our shelves, satisfies our customers, and keeps them coming back to Tamimi Markets with smiles and anticipation of an even more enjoyable shopping experience. Now that's a competitive advantage!