Enhancing network communications has never been so crucial to driving productivity as today, when demands for more data and faster access for more users are accelerating.
The company president using an executive information system from a remote site and the cashier processing check
verification in the lane are among the countless masters networks must serve.
However, as the number of users, especially for distributed processing applications, continues to grow, information systems staff must seek out networking solutions that deliver the goods -- for today's needs and those anticipated tomorrow -- at a reasonable cost.
Emphasis on networking is further underscored in a recent survey of retailers and wholesalers, 24% of whom cited it as the top priority for 1996 in SN's annual State of the Industry Report on Supermarket Technology. In 1995, only 11% of survey respondents ranked network projects so highly.
Increasingly, retailers and wholesalers are looking to replace analog networks with two types of access protocols -- frame relay and integrated services digital networks -- to handle massive data transmission needs cost-effectively.
While frame relay and ISDN in particular are still evolving and not available everywhere in the country, both are gaining in importance among a growing number of distributors.
"ISDN is an absolutely terrific technology for us," said Ray Hamilton, vice president of information systems and technology for Sutton Place Gourmet, Rockville, Md. He said Washington area stores use the network access protocol for a host of applications.
"We pay a fixed price per month for 112 kilobits per second of throughput and we are running all of our ordering system, our groupwide electronic mail and signage transfers over the network," he said.
Although he declined to disclose the monthly fee Sutton Place pays for ISDN in the Washington division, Hamilton did indicate it fell within the U.S. average rate of $50 per site.
Unlike analog networks that can handle one data transmission at a time, frame relay and ISDN move data over multiple channels simultaneously on one pair of copper wires. The result is better bandwidth utilization and expanded capacity "on demand" to handle additional applications.
ISDN can accommodate various types of transmissions, including voice, video and facsimile, but retailers and wholesalers told SN that data communications is most important to them. Many companies using ISDN still maintain a separate line for voice communications, and video conferencing -- at least for now -- is not a viable application.
Abco Foods, Phoenix, however, is interested in exploiting ISDN to handle both data and voice communications when the latter becomes available.
"The problem is that the voice side of it is not ready to go or I would already have started some testing with ISDN," said Jerry Johnson, vice president of management information systems and chief information officer at Abco.
He said full ISDN capacity is not yet available in his market area, but Abco is ready to get involved when that changes. A test of ISDN could be launched as early as the first quarter of 1997 at Abco.
He cited benefits including speedier transmission rates, cost savings, flexibility, expandability and the simplified management of fewer communications lines.
Johnson said his company's stores have benefited from frame relay communications for some five years now but "I think ISDN is going to be the replacement for frame relay."
Central to how quickly retailers embrace ISDN will be compatibility with existing systems: "We're hoping the industry will look at the routers and bridges that we've already got in our stores and hopefully make it compatible so ISDN can fit right in there," he said.
Bill Baker, vice president of data processing at Laurel Grocery, London, Ky., said ISDN is not yet available in his market, but is still an option that bears exploration because retailers' need for more bandwidth capacity keeps growing. Laurel services about 400 stores and communications are currently modem-to-modem.
"We are discussing [network plans] now and haven't decided how we're going to do this. We hope to at least start working on something at the end of this year," he said.
ISDN is not available in all markets today and rates may vary somewhat. Sutton Place Gourmet, for its part, opted for frame relay in Connecticut stores.
"I tried looking at using ISDN in Connecticut, but the pricing wasn't as good [as Washington] for ISDN communications," said Hamilton. "So in that area we're going to be using frame relay."
Frame relay, a more widely deployed digital access protocol, also exploits bandwidth capacity and is particularly well-suited to handling "bursty" data traffic like price files.
Alex Lee Inc., Hickory, N.C., introduced frame relay communications to its 50 Lowe's Food Stores a few months ago.
Impressive productivity gains are seen in the checklane today because Lowe's check verification process is driven by frame relay in real time -- a vast improvement over the manual process, said Cal Sihilling, vice president of information systems at Alex Lee Inc.
"I think this frame relay check authorization stuff we've been doing is pretty exciting because we're actually doing it in five seconds now," he said.
The network is also used for electronic mail delivered in real time.
Byrd Food Stores, Burlington, N.C., is building a network at the corporate office now and although various applications are still being discussed, E-mail has been identified as a clear objective.
"We've got the [network] infrastructure in place, but we haven't moved on it. The floor's been poured but we haven't put the walls in yet," said Robert Hartless, vice president of management information systems.
"We want to place personal computers on everyone's desk networked together and replace those old text-based screens," he added.
The 43-store chain will begin installing PC-based point-of-sale systems at stores next month and the upgrade could open the door to broader networking initiatives. Hartless pointed out, however, that the chainwide rollout will be gradual, with perhaps five stores equipped by year-end.
Buehler Foods, Jasper, Ind., is also building a corporate local area network and completed installation late last month, said Gary Trible, director of management information systems.
The immediate objective is to enhance decision support at headquarters but stores could be networked at a later point, he said.
"We're trying to bring our management staff, the directors of different departments, more meaningful data. We want to give them a tool to do trend analysis and, in a Windows environment, they'll be more productive," Trible said.
Decision support is also a key driver behind the networking program under way at Super Center Concepts, a seven-store independent in Lynwood, Calif.
"A lot of what we'll be doing is geared toward data warehousing -- providing the management, through the click of a button, with a snapshot of our stores" for performance and profitability analysis, said Sam Kang, network specialist.
Stores operated by Super Center Concepts are linked to the network via ISDN lines, he noted. The company maintains separate lines for voice and data communications.