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Any challenging technology problem isn't a setback; it's simply an opportunity to learn and grow.
This mindset is a guiding principle for John Trainor, CIO of Aaron's, an Atlanta-based retailer of furniture, electronics and appliances. A couple years ago, the Aaron's network team rolled out Cisco Meraki software-defined WAN (SD-WAN) devices to 2,100 of its North American stores. The team hoped the Meraki firewall devices with built-in SD-WAN capabilities would improve VoIP performance and better support its cloud and microservices environments.
While the team was happy with Meraki's firewall and content filtering capabilities, it encountered problems a couple months into deployment, Trainor said. One issue was VPN instability, in which the VPN tunnels started to fail after the team had deployed a certain threshold of Meraki devices. The team also couldn't get Aaron's voice and unified communications as a service to perform with the Meraki devices.
"We continued the deployment while we were working through those problems, thinking it was something we were doing with configuration or with the carrier," Trainor said.
Gradually, however, the team realized the issues weren't due to connectivity or carrier problems, but limitations with the Meraki technology. Although they had tested the product before deployment, they hadn't been able to properly gauge how Meraki could handle the scale they needed. Meraki's response to the problem was to ship Aaron's more boxes to put in its data center as concentrators, but that didn't address the issue, Trainor said.
Cisco Meraki MX has more than 13,000 customers using its SD-WAN appliances, mainly for security, according to Gartner's 2019 Magic Quadrant for WAN edge infrastructure. While smaller organizations with fewer IT resources find Meraki relatively easy to use, Gartner said it lacks native application performance capabilities -- something the Aaron's team found to be an impediment.
"When we wanted to do more around link quality and quality of service -- things that were more advanced at the application level -- that's where we felt we needed additional firepower," he said.
The transition to CloudGenix SD-WAN
Once the Aaron's network team realized Meraki couldn't quite meet store requirements, it started to consider other options.
John TrainorCIO, Aaron's
"We were in this mode where we were being very careful," Trainor said. "We wanted to solve the problem, but we didn't want to make the problem worse."
Part of the team's cautious approach was to move away from the mindset of solving a technology problem and instead pinpoint the specific business problems the new product would need to address. Instead of aiming to improve Layer 3 connectivity, for example, the team focused on how to connect Aaron's cloud-based payment systems and aggregate data from the branch stores.
The team evaluated VeloCloud, Cisco Viptela and CloudGenix SD-WAN options, looking for technology that was more tailored to application-level configuration, Trainor said. They also talked with the vendors' existing customers that had deployed SD-WAN at a similar scale so they could evaluate how the prospective vendors met those customers' needs.
They eventually chose CloudGenix SD-WAN, while still retaining the Meraki devices for an added layer of firewall protection and failover. CloudGenix has more than 800 WAN edge customers and provides network visibility into application performance and cloud-based services, according to Gartner. That visibility and application focus aligned with Aaron's requirements.
Deploying CloudGenix SD-WAN
The Aaron's team began cautious deployments with a small pilot group of stores during the first few months. Over time, they scaled more aggressively, reaching about 2,000 stores in six to nine months, Trainor said.
As the team deployed CloudGenix SD-WAN, they again encountered challenges around VPN instability. This time, however, they received a different vendor response. When Aaron's VPN tunnels began to fail, CloudGenix acknowledged a problem with its software and deployed the upgrade to all locations within 18 hours, Trainor said.
With CloudGenix SD-WAN, Aaron's was able to prioritize traffic for its cloud-based VoIP payments and decrease VoIP quality complaints, Trainor said. With the CloudGenix management console, the Aaron's network team gained near-real-time visibility into the operational performance at their stores, in addition to faster response times, he said.
"We saw connectivity problems like everybody else, but it wasn't the level as it was before," he said. "I credit a lot of that to the team's ability to respond to changing needs on the network with the management tool."
Although Meraki didn't quite meet Aaron's needs, Trainor said he views the deployment as an evolution and learning experience.
"I don't consider it a failure necessarily," Trainor said of the Meraki rollout. "The key thing is this isn't one product versus another. To me, it's a constant evolution of the way you think about managing and optimizing your network."