As restaurant, hotel and motel operators increasingly rely on IP applications for credit-card transactions, the need for a secure network to protect sensitive data becomes paramount to business operations. However, true network security consists of more than routers and passwords. Hospitality operators, at both the corporate and franchise level, need to adopt a comprehensive system strategy that can meet current and adapt to future IT needs.
Last year, Troy Richards installed a virtual private network (VPN) from New Edge Networks (newedgenet works.com) to link his nine Phoenixarea Wendy's restaurants and centralize data access. The system, which replaced his dial-up connection, soon will allow Richards to conduct secure high-speed credit-card transactions.
Tom Baldwin, chief technology officer for the network and IT consulting firm Darcomm Network Solutions (darcomm.com), worked closely with Richards to develop his system. He says a secure network includes a "firewall, anti-virus software, remote access technology and a VPN application that's secure back to the remote or central office."
A robust firewall can not only prevent hackers from attacking intranets and other secure data, but it can also protect network service. The SideWinder firewall, installed on Richards' system, blocks employee access to all but 30 job-related Web sites. Furthermore, URL filtering prevents the bandwidth loss that occurs with large Internet file downloads.
Richards says that "productivity more than anything has increased" since installation of his network, which streams video from each store and provides remote access to daily sales figures, payroll and inventory from anywhere, including his home in San Diego, in real-time.
"What this (system) did was give us more time to monitor our business operations," Richards adds. "Ninety percent of the time I can go online and get everything I need from an administrative standpoint."
AFC Enterprises, operator of Popeye's Chicken and Biscuits, needed to streamline communications between its headquarters and its franchise partners scattered throughout the United States. The company wanted to take many of its paper-based operations online and improve the efficiency of its operations. To reach these goals, AFC implemented a VPN because of its low cost and high performance.
When AFC originally investigated methods for improving communications with its partners, it considered setting up a secure dial-in connection. It planned to supply each franchise partner with the equipment and software it would need to complete the connection, but wanted each business to pay for its own dial-in costs. Research determined that this would cost each franchise partner an average of $3.50 per hour, which, as the system became more robust, could quickly reach several hundred dollars each month. By selecting a VPN, it limited the partners' expense to a monthly online service bill, usually under $20.
Before using a VPN, it was difficult and time consuming for AFC to keep its franchise partners up-to-date on operating standards. If an item in the company's manual changed, a whole section needed to be reprinted and distributed. Now the company manual is accessed through an extended intranet made possible by the VPN. Franchise partners can download the sections they need to update. This helps partners access the information they need quickly and keeps AFC's costs down.
AFC derived even greater savings when the VPN allowed it to streamline communications between field personnel and store locations. The field workers had been the franchise partners' AFC contact. Before the VPN was installed, they roamed within their territories and responded to calls as needed.
By replacing this inefficient method with online collaboration from the main office using the VPN, these AFC field consultants were able to manage four times as many partner relationships--a 400 percent productivity improvement. In addition, the field employees' morale improved because their continuous road trips were reduced to occasional visits.
AFC is finding additional ways that its VPN can be used to save money and improve operations. The company has developed an online project management application that helps franchise partners manage the opening of new restaurant locations.
It is a comprehensive tool and will assist with each detail of the process, from finding profitable sites to "grand opening" marketing plans. A template that will allow franchise partners to set goals for the coming year with their Atlanta-based consultant is also in development. As the deadline for a given goal approaches, the system will trigger messages to both parties. AFC is also creating a back-office tool to assist franchise partners with food cost analysis, labor scheduling and a variety of other operational tasks.
Darcomm's Baldwin further advises hotel and motel operators "to put a firewall between the corporate and guest networks" noting that "in that environment credit-card information with guest's names is readily available." He warns that unsecured information in the wrong hands could promote identity theft.
As a number of industry experts have told Hospitality Technology, they expect that the increasing use of Quality of Services (QOS) applications, which require network traffic to be prioritized, and ever-present security issues will drive movement from traditional dial-up to VPNs.
Protecting credit cards As more and more restaurants adopt credit cards, franchisors will need to adopt Payment Card Industry (PCI) Data Security Standards to protect customer information. (For more on the security standards, see "Credit Report" on page 32.)
Darcomm's Baldwin believes that a secure network prevents the loss and destruction of data and the time needed to restore it. Richards, who attests to the security of his VPN, says that, "All data is stored on one server, so if the computers are down, we can access information from another computer."
Baldwin says that at Darcomm, "We do a security assessment, network evaluation and a scan to find vulnerabilities in their (client's) network" before installation. Others note that hospitality operators need to access their available resources first. They point out that the conflicting network needs of corporate franchisor and franchise owners may dictate installation of an extranet to connect with the private IP.
Hospitality operators need to understand the benefits of using a private versus Internet network for applications that they are using today and may use tomorrow. Richards estimates that his "system adds at least $75,000 to our bottom line if not more" in reduced food costs for his restaurants, which now totals $14 million in annual sales.