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Checkers jumps to cellular data as cheaper alternative to MPLS WAN

Moving to a cellular wide area network (WAN) from an MPLS WAN helped Checkers fast-food chain cut costs while gaining a simplified installation and a single throat to choke.

Moving to a wireless wide area network (WWAN) from an MPLS WAN helped the Checkers restaurant chain cut down on costs even as the new, all-cellular WAN gave it simpler network installation and a single point of contact for problems.

It was this last characteristic that was most appealing to Antonio Zambrano, director of IT for Checkers Drive-in Restaurants Inc. Zambrano was weary of dealing with the multiple service providers who were supplying his company's restaurants with MPLS WAN services across different geographies.

"To be honest, we wanted to just deal with one company, and to make sure we could service all the restaurants with one throat to choke," he said. "And we wanted Sprint to be our provider."

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After piloting a WWAN from Sprint's 3G wireless service in five restaurants, Checkers began replacing all its corporate-owned restaurants' WAN connections with the service. Franchised restaurants are responsible for their own Internet services.

So far, the service has been deployed at 120 of the 252 Checkers-owned restaurants, and Zambrano could not be happier.

"It's better to have one company providing it all," he said.

Zambrano was able to simplify the implantation of the WWAN by pairing the Sprint wireless data service with Aruba's AP-70.

The AP-70s are Wi-Fi access points (APs) which IT staff can configure at headquarters and then send to restaurant managers for simple plug-and-play installation. This saves a costly truck roll or, worse, having to hire an outside contractor for installation.

Aruba's technology also allows the APs to securely tunnel through the Internet over a variety of connectivity options -- in Checkers' case, Sprint's 3G USB plug-in -- directly back to a company's central servers, where secure policies can be enforced and managed.

"These guys [restaurant managers] aren't into technology," Zambrano said. "They just want to make sure the burgers come out and the fries are good, so we had to make sure it's really simple."

The cellular WAN alternative

Similar wide area network installations are on the rise, though it is still a niche category compared with the conventional MPLS WAN, according to Frank Dickson, vice president of research at In-Stat.

"There [are] numerous niche solutions which are market specific, and they tend to address a need better than bringing in a wired broadband solution," Dickson said. "If you've got construction, for example, you just bring it in and -- bang -- you have a wireless connection, and you don't have to worry about wiring."

By and large, IT administrators are sticking with the wired MPLS WAN they are used to unless they have a compelling reason to switch, he said. Those compelling reasons can range from cost savings or mobility to -- as with Zambrano -- the convenience of having a single vendor.

"The management overhead to set up a lot of these [WAN] contracts gets to be taxing," Dickson said. "One throat to choke solves a lot of problems. You don't have to negotiate 50 contracts. You can negotiate one."

There are obvious potential downsides to a cellular WWAN, such as the generally higher cost of wireless data, the possibility of poor or nonexistent wireless coverage in some areas, and the relatively slower data transfer rates 3G cellular data delivers as compared with DSL, cable or fiber.

During the pilot phase at Checkers, Zambrano tested a variety of applications the chain might implement in the future, including Voice over IP (VoIP), and saw success.

He said each restaurant today has a PC that -- after being routed through Checkers central IT via Sprint -- can access about five designated websites that offer Software as a Service (SaaS) applications and even streaming training videos for new employees.

Steve Coker, senior manager for Sprint's product marketing team, said cellular WANs like Checkers' were becoming more common, often in conjunction with a traditional wired WAN installation.

"Wireless as an access method is really compelling for a lot of our customers," Coker said. "Even more than our customers like Checkers, though, companies that have [networked vending machines] have seen huge benefits."

Redbox has networked its movie rental kiosks via Sprint's cellular network. Instead of relying on the stores that host Redbox machines to provide them with wired or Wi-Fi connection, each kiosk uses a Sprint 3G connection to process credit cards and to hold movies for customers, who reserve them online.

Coker said another common use of the cellular WAN was for seasonal or temporary offices, such as tax preparation centers, which have low-latency-sensitive needs but still demand a connection.

Ultimately, Coker said, it's all about the customer's needs.

"What I'd say for Checkers is they obviously feel they haven't given anything up, in terms of what's important for them," he said. "The conversation we have with all of our customers is: 'Why do you have the data connection? What do you need to have?'"

For point-of-sale and other applications that don't require the high performance guarantees of MPLS, a WWAN can fit perfectly into a sound IT strategy, but Coker warned against trusting latency-sensitive applications like VoIP to a 3G connection.

WiMax cellular WAN on the way?

With 4G networks on the way, IT managers might start to feel more comfortable with running high-performance applications like voice and video over a wireless WAN. Sprint's 4G WiMax network is off the ground in Baltimore, and it will be rolling out to other major cities over the next few years. Verizon and AT&T's respective LTE networks will also expand the possibilities for WWAN over the next few years.

As these networks' footprints expand, deploying an office-in-a-box may be almost as simple as plugging a router into a wall: no wiring needed.

"For small businesses like an H&R Block, you could take a WiMax connection, hook it up to a Wi-Fi router and -- bang -- you've got a whole office set up," Dickson said.

The heightened bandwidth available could quickly take cellular WANs from the niche to a ready alternative for connections that don't require connections faster than DSL.

"4G starts to play into those spaces in between landline and wireless options," Coker said. "I would certainly say that data services generally are where the growth in the market will be."

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