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Packet muxing: low-cost strategy links retail sites.


Despite its size, retail has traditionally lagged behind other industries in applying telecomm technology.

Cost-management pressures and thin operating margins have caused retail-network managers to scrutinize new investments carefully.

Most regional retailers have relied on low-speed leased analog lines and modems to handle voice and data between stores and between headquarters and central DP centers.

As traffic volume has expanded, the cost of leasing additional circuits has often absorbed a big part of the budget increases.

But now many midsize chains use integrated packet multiplexing to expand the functionality of their networks while controlling circuit costs.

They're allowing voice and data to share transmission facilities and permitting network operators to manage bandwidth more efficiently.

These integrated voice/data muxes are ideally suited to the "star" configuration topology that characterizes most retail networks.

Since most voice and data traffic is between individual stores and the central location, rather than across store locations, retailers can make effective use of point-to-point systems (based on dedicated sub-rate lines) and avoid costly T1-based solutions.

Link Shops To T1

Privately owned Stone & Thomas--whose 19 stores are in West Virginia, Ohio, and Kentucky--does $125 million in annual sales.

The financial and administrative center is in Wheeling.

Sales, merchandising, and promotion are headquartered in Charleston.

Steven Fromme, vice president for management information services, had three objectives in designing an upgraded network.

* Provide a high-volume/high-speed link between the retailer's two main offices.

* Connect the 19 stores to both headquarters.

* Save money.

To meet the first objective, the company installed a T1 backbone between Wheeling and Charleston, using a microwave hop to link the T1 lines where terrestrial circuits were not available.

Originally, dedicated analog lines connected stores to this backbone.

Traditional modems supported data communications.

Now each store is linked to the T1 backbone via digital tail circuits.

Two stores--in Ashland, Ky., and Bluefield, W.V.--connect to Wheeling via VSAT links; the rest, conventional leased lines.

To make this change cost-effective, Stone & Thomas added RLX muxing systems (from Republic Telcom Systems, Boulder, Colo.).

By using low-bit-rate packetizing, the muxes can transmit voice at rates as low as 7 kb/s while maintaing high voice quality.

They also maximize throughput by integrating voice and data on the same circuit.

Put at each end of the tail circuits, they create a digital voice and data environment for each store.

Digital Circuits

This has allowed Stone & Thomas to replace a multipoint network based on multiple analog lines, with a single 56- or 64-kb/s digital circuit for each store.

The muxes provide four voice channels and two 9.6-kb/s data paths on each 56- or 64-kb/s line.

The bandwidth allocation can be reconfigured to accommodte higher data volume, such as point-of-sale (POS) system of polling, during periods of heavy data traffic.

The muxes let each store talk directly to the central mainframe, independent of other stores.

When Stone & Thomas operated a multipoint analog network, a line problem on one link should disrupt voice and data transmission from several locations.

Stone & Thomas reports the doublding of voice capacity without an increase in total network costs.

"By the time we got through with analog voice and analog data circuits, modems and log modems, we had spent as much money as we do with one 56-kb/s digital line," says Fromme. "The savings from the voice channels give us one extra data channel for free."

Stone & Thomas can now collect sales and credit information from 30-40 POS stations per store, at a rate of four times per second.

The stores can perform real-time credit verification on sales data entered into Unix-based POS terminals, while the network supports voice traffic at the same time.

Managing Madhouse

Filene's Basement in downtwon Boston is a prototype wholesale outlet.

Shoppers for bargains on clothes can create some ugly stampedes.

But that's part of the charm of the place.

Come prepared to grab for the racks.

At least the help has it easier with new technology.

The midsize regional retailer's new multiplexers (also from Republic) are containing costs.

They connect 14 store--in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey--to headquarters in Wellesley, Mass.

Operating on private analog lines, the RLX-2A in each Filene's location provides two dedicated voice channels or one voice and one 9.6-kb/s data circuit on a single 19.2-kb/s analog line.

Data is collected by a major node and passed into a T1 ring network, which transmits it to an IBM mainframe.

Vital sales, attendance, and payroll data is polled daily from each site by the central DP center.

This information is then transmitted to regional distribution centers, where it speeds reorders and shipments and supports centralized management reporting.

The multiplexers have reduced reporting delays.

Filene's can improve tracking of inventory movement between distribution outlets and stores.

This capability helps in subsequent sales.

Filene's Basement management also uses the data circuits to give sales clerks immediate access to automatic credit authorization through the point-of-sales terminal.

If a clerk is instructed to seek verbal approval for credit, a voice channel is available on the same dedicated circuit.

By integrating voice and data channels, the RL-2A also supports conversations while data is being transferred.

Filene's Basement has lowered its telecommunications costs by a third on its dedicated lines between remote sites and headquarters.

Ron Cormier, network manager for the company, explains succintly how his company is getting its return on investment: "We pay for only one circuit each month instead of three."
COPYRIGHT 1990 Nelson Publishing
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1990 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:Communications News
Date:Feb 1, 1990
Previous Article:Impersonal touch? Risk Management Resources' bottom line outweighs criticism of voice processing.
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