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Liquor distributor turns to SD-WAN to support digital operation

Liquor distributor Republic National Distributing Co. chose the less expensive Silver Peak SD-WAN to raise the reliability of its new digital operation.

Six years ago, Republic National Distributing Co. decided to become a digital business. Rather than continue shuffling and filing a mountain of paperwork, the company of 8,000 employees and $7 billion in annual revenue moved to IP-based ordering, invoicing and communications.

To support a more digital operation, RNDC leased two MPLS links -- one from CenturyLink and the other from Windstream Communications. For backup, the company got two LTE wireless connections -- one from AT&T and the other from Verizon.

Together, the WAN connections support all the data traffic from the Atlanta-based company's 60 warehouses and sales offices spread across 23 states. They are also the lifelines of RNDC's voice over IP telephone system, which replaced the company's legacy private branch exchange.

But becoming a more digitized company carries risks. If a WAN connection goes down at a site, all business stops. "The problem is worse now if we lose a connection," said Roderick Bethly, the network architect at RNDC.

To raise the reliability of the network supporting its digital operation, RNDC deployed a virtualized software-defined WAN (SD-WAN) from Silver Peak Inc. The product monitors the four connections and automatically reroutes traffic if one of the links goes down or dips in performance.

RNDC's shortlist of SD-WAN vendors

RNDC started shopping for an SD-WAN in 2015 and came up with a shortlist of three vendors: Cisco, Citrix and Silver Peak. Cisco was eliminated from the running first because of cost, Bethly said.

Cisco's SD-WAN product, IWAN, would have required upgrading RNDC's 2900 and 3900 Cisco Integrated Services Routers (ISRs) to the 4000 series, Bethly said. That meant spending $2 million to $3 million, or roughly twice the cost of deploying Citrix or Silver Peak.

"Their [Cisco's] SD-WAN technology is still in its infancy," Bethly said. "In order to move to that arena, we would have had to have done a forklift of all of our wide-area network routers."

How much other companies would spend deploying IWAN would depend on their networking environments, said Brad Casemore, an analyst at IDC. Other companies might find upgrading to the ISR 4000 series worth the expense.

"The ISR 4000 series has appeal for Cisco customers that want to consolidate services or devices at their branch offices," Casemore said.

RNDC also dropped Citrix from the list because it required installing an SD-WAN appliance in all 60 locations, Bethly said. That made Citrix about 20% more expensive than Silver Peak.

The winning vendor was cheaper because a virtualized version of its product could run in the server module on the Cisco ISRs. Also, network managers could install the software remotely from RNDC headquarters.

But the Silver Peak deployment was not easy, Bethly said. An engineer familiar with SD-WAN was needed to configure the software and get it up and running. Citrix's setup process would have been easier, because it didn't require the same level of talent.

"As a product, it [Silver Peak] is still growing," Bethly said. "It's growing in its manageability and ease of deployment. ... Silver Peak's product was truly an engineering product."

RNDC is in the process of determining the return on investment from Silver Peak's SD-WAN. Nevertheless, the company is confident the cost of the technology will be offset by increased reliability and performance of the WAN supporting the digital operation, Bethly said.

Network outages can cost RNDC millions of dollars, particularly during the busy holiday season. From October through December, the company does $1 billion in sales each month.

With so much at stake, a lot is riding on RNDC's SD-WAN. Time will tell whether it meets the company's expectations of a nearly outage-free network and a smooth running digital operation.

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