Secured Wireless Offers Enterprises More Than Just Peace of Mind

Two midsize retail operations discover a cost-efficient way to secure wireless networking internally for greater efficiency and push it out of house as a customer service offering.

November 10, 2005

5 Min Read
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Seventeen years ago, Ralph Flynn was ready to retire after successful careers in engineering and marketing. Yet he wanted to do something he enjoyed, and so went back to his college days, when he managed a coffeehouse in Boston. He started the Coffee Society in California in 1989, and the idea of retirement has long since faded away. He has built an establishment that has become the "in" place to have a cup of joe, a place to see and be seen. People are encouraged to come and stay--mingle with others or work at a computer.

"It's really a living room," Flynn says. That would be a 2,400-square-foot living room--a size twice as large as a typical Starbucks. And, to make it particularly attractive for computer users, the coffee house includes free wireless access to its patrons, every time they enter a store.

Acknowledging Wireless Insecurities

Of course, free wireless brings concern for the shop owner that some unscrupulous coffee aficionado will hack into the store's systems. That could do a lot of damage, especially since a substantial amount of the Coffee Society's business is done online.

The business needed the security offered by a dedicated firewall appliance, as well as switching capabilities to connect multiple users and workgroups. Flynn wanted the stores to be connected so he could compare sales and inventory data, for example.One option would be for each of the three Coffee Society locations to purchase the solution as separate products, which would be a costly effort. Flynn noted that, as a small business--the Coffee Society has a total of approximately 70 employees--"every dollar counts." In addition, separate products could mean bigger costs in the future, because of increased deployment and management complexity. Enter the second option, provided by solution provider KIS.

"Ralph had a good idea of what he wanted to do, but he was not sure of how to do it," says Mike Florence, a senior account executive at KIS. "He was able, by and large, to get the firewall protection he wanted through a new SonicWALL product, the PRO1260."

The product offers deep inspection firewall and IPSec VPN capabilities with an intelligent, wire-speed, 24-port, auto-sensing MDIX switch in a single network security and LAN switching platform.

"It satisfied Ralph's needs, and we could put a package together for down the road. As an entrepreneur, he thought about how he could grow his business through technology, and he's doing it for [less than] $6,000 per site."

Today, Flynn is preparing to open two more shops, both offering free wireless Internet access to patrons. The current stores are getting technological updates as well: Flynn can now remotely monitor sales of his stores as well as customer buying habits throughout the day, and through video surveillance, he can observe his employees as well as his customers.In fact, he uses the tapes (which are made with the knowledge of the employees) for training purposes. But all of the information is secure and ready for him at his fingertips, no matter where he might be. That provides huge peace of mind, he says.

"The SonicWALL solution saves me so much frustration. I feel like I have a handle on my business. Last night, I got up, couldn't sleep, checked sales volumes, made sure registers were locked up," Flynn says. "Then, I went back to bed."

Although Flynn had a vision and embraces technology options, not all small and midsize businesses have founders who are as technologically savvy.

That was the case at EZ Lube, a midsize chain of nearly 70 fast oil change companies in Southern California. The company faces big-name competition from Meineke and Valvoline Instant Oil Change. Although the chain's executive team knew technology could spur more impressive growth (on average, the business launches eight new locations a year), it fell to Bruce Carter, director of IT at EZ Lube to bring the company into the 21st century.

"I brought them in kicking and screaming," Carter recalls.Despite some initial resistance, the company has arrived at the forefront of technology. The company, which is popular with its patrons because of its painstaking attention to customer service, wanted, as did the Coffee Society, to help customers' 'wait' time to be as productive as possible and decided to offer wireless Internet access.

"Security is critical in here," says Carter, who joined EZ Lube in 2002, bringing with him an extensive background in wireless technology from MCI. He, like Flynn, was concerned with the potential of someone hacking into EZ Lube's computer system.

Carter was familiar with SonicWALL based on past experience, and built a secure distributed network using the vendor's TZW Series of wireless security appliances.

"The device is quite brilliant," Carter says. "This is a combined firewall and isolated wireless backbone and access points. For me, it's manna from heaven. It came in at a palatable price point. Top executives are slow to adopt new technology, and this is a system that does everything and execs are comfortable with it."

Aside from getting management buy-in, Carter was also concerned about placing the access points strategically. The very nature of EZ Lube's business meant there were physical barriers, including concrete and metal, to overcome at locations.But the TZW products work well, providing excellent signal strength. Each appliance provides guest wireless services for waiting customers and also securely connects EZ Lube's wireless handheld point-of-service (POS) devices, which are used for customer greeting and billing at the branches.

The entire wireless installation was rolled out in nine days, with each appliance configured at the EZ Lube headquarters and installed by a district manager during a regularly scheduled location visit. According to Carter, every unit was functional in about 15 minutes.

Now Carter is looking forward to an RFID implementation that would incorporate a vehicle information tag on every customer's sun visor. That way, when a car pulls into the local EZ Lube, an employee scans the car's history and the technician is immediately informed of the work needed and can begin immediately. Gone are the days of your car being identified by your phone number.

"This is why I wanted to do this job," says Carter. "To change the way the industry is run."

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