VPN Virtues

By George Koroneos, Contributing Editor | May 01, 2005

Virtual-private networks (VPNs) open up a whole world of on-line software programs that help businesses better manage inventory control, payroll, scheduling and security. Credit and gift card transactions can be done at a fraction of the time it takes a dial-up transaction to complete, and guests can securely access the Internet through both wired and wireless connections.

What sets a virtual private network apart from the public Internet is control and security. While many VPNs can traverse the public Internet, there are also private networks that do not touch the Internet. These networks ride over a company's private backbone network to a carrier that connects all the locations together over a private network.

The Noodle network

While looking for a cost-effective solution to link all its fast-casual restaurants together, Noodles & Company decided to go with a Netifice (netifice.com) VPN for the cost and logistic benefits of having a single provider manage different DSL suppliers needed to wire each establishments explains John Lauderbach, vice president information technology for Noodles & Company, which boasts 104 stores and three franchises scattered over seven states.

Programs running over the DSL line are kept simple to avoid any security risk, according to Lauderbach. A food-costing system is used for ordering inventory direct from the vendor, as well as an e-mail service. "We have a corporate portal to provide stores with forms and the latest company news," Lauderbach says. At night each store backs up all its data to the corporate office through the VPN.

A key benefit to using a private network versus the public Internet is the ability to control what employees use the Internet for. "Stores using the VPN are on our domain, which we can keep considerably safer, by curbing •wild browsing' which leads to a constant ad-ware, spy-ware and virus problem," Lauderbach explains. Operators can now only access a tailor-made portal that redirects them to individual vendors providing food, marketing and office supplies.

Speed dial

Prior to installing New Edge Network's (newedgenetwork.com) VPN system, Burgerville was running their network via a dial-up service over a traditional phone line. "The network was very slow and it precluded a lot of applications from running effectively and efficiently," explains Bill Vokoun, director of information technology at Burgerville, a 39-restaurant burger chain headquartered in Vancouver, Washington. "We needed to make a change to accommodate the growth and operational requirements that we were moving into."

Burgerville's IT team considered satellite and terrestrial Internet/network providers before contracting New Edge. The key benefit, according to Vokoun was security. "This is a private network that is only used by New Edge customers," Vokoun explains. "We feel secure sending credit card and gift card information over the data line, because all the information is encrypted. If we were running over the public Internet, even if the data were encrypted, there is still the possibility of problems."

The installation took approximately 45 days. The provider handled the entire roll-out process including hardware and software issues, and appropriated the DSL connection through a local exchange provider at each location.

"The main utility we were looking for was an always-on, high-speed data connection to all of our restaurants from our home office," Vokoun says. "From a customer service perspective it's much easier troubleshooting issues that were going on in the restaurant if we could literally control the software in the restaurant through the network."

Burgerville has several programs currently running over the network, allowing the company to:

• Update menu items from their corporate office in real time,

• poll sales, labor and inventory data back to the central computers,

• connect directly to supplier's network to electronically order inventory,

• manage e-mail, calendar and contact information using MS Entourage and MS Exchange, thereby reducing paperwork.

In the near future, the company is planning to boost its Internet bandwidth to run programs such as online performance appraisals, an e-training system, and an application that allows the end-user to monitor refrigerator temperatures via the Internet.

High-speed hospitality

The restaurant industry isn't the only hospitality arena using virtual private networks. Hotel operators are also trying to boost their Internet speed and offer guests all the conveniences of being at the office.

The Summit Hospitality Group realized that business professionals staying at any of the 12 hotels owned by the company could not access some of the high-bandwidth applications run over the Internet using traditional dial-up connections. "Many of our customers today are using VPNs to connect back with corporate network applications," says Greg Wright, chief information officer for Summit Hospitality. "They expect access to a true mobile office, and to do that, they need high-speed Internet connections."

Rather than wire a single public Internet connection through the hotel and split it off to each room, Summit's information technology team and solution provider turned to Cisco for a virtual private network that runs all the company's applications as well as give customers a high-speed connection to link to the Internet.

The Cisco (cisco.com) solution serves as the gateway between Summit's Internet service and its guests, enabling users to access all wired and wireless services from a standard browser. The platform handles all authorization, accounting, reporting, policy, and management functions, and allows Summit to deliver customized content to users, including branded gateways for each property.

"We had zero problems deploying this solution," says John Cunningham, general manager of the Summit's Dunhill Hotel in Charlotte. "It was the smoothest rollout of any guest service we've ever provided here."

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