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Sun 27 Nov 2005 04:00 AM

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Retail Reach

When luxury goods retailer Al Hawaj needed to connect its stores across Bahrain wirelessly, it turned to Orthogon Systems.

|~|hawaj200-1.jpg|~|Al Hawaj has luxury retail stores across Bahrain, and needed a non-line-of-sight solution to connect them wirelessly.|~|Luxury retailer Al Hawaj has concluded its trial implementation of a new wireless wide area network (WAN) system, and is now in the process of rolling it out across all its retail outlets.

The Bahrain-based retailer chose an OS-Gemini Lite point-to-point solution from Orthogon Systems and selected the vendor’s local partner Bahrain Advanced Technology (Batec) to manage the deployment. The new solution comprises paired wireless Ethernet bridges operating at 5.8GHz and providing up to 22Mbps bandwidth. Al Hawaj has stores all over Bahrain, and so needed a solution that provided this level of bandwidth over distances up to 15 km, in order to connect even its furthest sites.

Crucially, the Orthogon system offers non-line-of-sight (NLOS) wireless networking, vital for a country like Bahrain where rapid development and construction could render a line-of-sight solution useless at any time. Rajendra Prabhu, CIO of Al Hawaj, says the company had been looking for a WAN solution since 1996, but had not found a suitable solution until Orthogon’s offering.

The situation at Al Hawaj before the company brought in the wireless WAN was not satisfactory, according to Prabhu. The firm was using dial-up connections at its sites to transfer batches of data to a file transfer protocol (FTP) server, where they would be processed. This required all the sites to maintain their own internet connections, and, more importantly, meant that two sets of data frequently existed between a single site and the central server.

“Prior to this, the system we had wasn’t as reliable as we wanted, and it wasn’t in real-time,” Prabhu explains. “We had explored the use of digital data networks, but [Bahraini telecoms provider] Batelco’s prices were just too high for us: we would have spent almost US$40,000 a year just to get 64kbps bandwidth to each site. In contrast implementing the OS-Gemini solution across all of our sites will cost approximately US$90,000 as a one-time expense.”

Al Hawaj started talks with Batec in June 2005 and by August, the company had moved to the pilot stage. Prabhu says Orthogon and its willingness to wait for payment until the solution had met all of Al Hawaj’s requirements impressed him. Batec first made a survey of the pilot sites, then erected adjustable six-metre-high masts to carry the signals.

Prabhu says, “Aside from the installation of the wireless bridges, we had to do very little to our network to utilise the WAN — it fitted easily into our existing set up. We had to change a number of our procedures, to take advantage of the real-time availability of the network, but this was reasonably straight forward. We are also using the wireless links to provide a number of other services to our sites, so this is something new we are bringing in.”||**|||~|hawaj200-2.jpg|~|Prabhu: “I come from a background in finance and banking, so I’m always focused on technology as a means to grow the business."|~|In addition to real-time transaction processing, Al Hawaj will be using the WAN to provide internet and voice-over-internet protocol (VoIP) services to its remote sites, and will be using the links to carry feeds from its security cameras in real-time as well. The company’s new enterprise resource planning (ERP) system, which it is developing internally, will also utilise the new network to improve productivity throughout the company.

In addition, the firm will use the network to back up its central servers to its remote disaster recovery site, entailing the transfer of approximately 10GB of data every evening. “We completed the first site implementation in August — since then we’ve been working with the Orthogon system every day, and we haven’t had a single cause for complaint,” Prabhu says. “These bridges are robust and have withstood the August heat in Bahrain, which can reach 55 degrees Celcius, while giving us 100% performance all the time. We decided to install the longest link first to ensure it would work in every circumstance: with three months’ service completed, we’re now happy to implement the solution across the company.”

In regards to the security of the Orthogon devices, Prabhu is convinced they are highly secure. Because the system works as a point-to-point solution, each link has its own dedicated pair of bridges, which is configured to only speak to each other. In this way the network should be proof against snooping attacks and any other attempts to break into the network through the wireless link. Because so many IT services, including internet connections, will now be centralised, this should also make securing Al Hawaj’s IT infrastructure more straight forward, according to Prabhu. Instead of attempting to monitor and protect a dozen separate internet connections across the sites, Al Hawaj's IT department will be able to deal with these issues at the head office, thus standardising and strengthening the company's approach to internet security.

He says, “In many ways we have been waiting to bring in a system like this for a long time, so it has always been something we have bourn in mind when looking at our infrastructure. The benefits to our business are enormous, both from an efficiency and productivity point of view with the real-time transactions, and from a cost point of view with VoIP and internet connections being centralised. From a conservative standpoint, we should achieve a return-on-investment (ROI) in a year. I personally think this may be possible in six months.”

Prabhu hopes to leverage the new Orthogon wireless system further when it fully implements the ERP system in January 2006, and he says the 22Mbps bandwidth is enough to allow further utilisation in the future. Prabhu states it is his role as a CIO to propose new ways to use technology to drive the business, proposals which according to him are usually given a good reception by Al Hawaj’s executives.

“I come from a background in finance and banking, so I’m always focused on technology as a means to grow the business, not technology for technology’s sake,” he says. “With the new wireless WAN, no single technology has ever impacted us to the same degree before; we’re experiencing a total freedom from barriers imposed by cost constraints, geographical constraints and time differences. In the increasingly competitive retail market we’re always looking for an edge, and this solution will certainly give us that,” he enthuses.

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