HBC moves to IP network

Canada’s Hudson Bay Company (HBC) is upgrading its legacy Frame Relay network to an Internet Protocol (IP)-based one over the next several months in an effort to add extra functionality and applications to its 450 stores across the country.

Realizing that all of HBC’s stores, including the Bay, Zellers and Home Outfitters locations, required higher bandwidth and network functionality, Toronto-based Gary Davenport, vice-president and chief information officer at HBC, said it was good timing for HBC to deploy a new network.

“We were running our Frame Relay network and it was meeting our current needs and as the contract came to an end, we started to assess where we wanted to go and what was the next generation network,” Davenport said. “It came together nicely at the same time for us the technology had matured and our requirements were there.”

HBC requested proposals for the project, and earlier this week Sprint Canada Inc. announced it would oversee the network conversion in a four-year agreement. The two companies had a previous contract whereby Sprint provided long distance, toll-free, audio conference and automated integrated voice response services for HBC.

Under the new agreement, Sprint Canada will also provide its IP Enabled solutions to allow HBC to connect all of its sites through Sprint’s virtual private network, and will consolidate HBC’s applications onto common access with redundant back-up support, increasing the bandwidth.

Davenport said there were two underlying issues that drove for changes to be deployed at HBC’s head office and its distribution centres across Canada. The first was the need for new applications at the stores that required greater bandwidth, and the second was the need for HBC to look to the future and be able to take advantage of the convergence of voice and data.

Some of the new apps that will be appearing on the network include three specific examples, Davenport explained.

First, HBC will be rolling out new decision support systems across the company driven by a large data warehouse support that will provide the user, or employees of HBC the ability to drill down into the data, making store managers more productive and providing better service to its customers, Davenport said.

Another application being added to the network that requires higher bandwidth is an Oracle Corp.-based enterprise resource planning system (ERP), which Davenport said will move HBC from a green screen environment, or a character-based only type of environment into a fully functioning point-and-click, easy-to-use system for its sales associates, adding content management capabilities.

“So, we are really going from a system that I call old enough to vote, to something that is current and modern and helpful to our associates,” he said.

The last example Davenport explained that would draw bandwidth from the network was an online learning application, to boost product knowledge and help employees assist making sales.

“So, the network is kind of the building block for everything else and as the retailer, not only do you have current needs today, like you have to have instantaneous response time at the point of sale and debit and credit and price look-up, but you also need to provide for back of house functions that make the store more productive,” Davenport said.

Greg McCamus, president, Sprint Canada, said the new “meshed” network will offer HBC a more cost-effective infrastructure.

“Most companies that have widely distributed branch locations are finding that they want to deliver higher bandwidth applications and they are implementing ERP-type solutions, looking for more stored data, looking to be more competitive…a whole host of things are driving higher bandwidth,” McCamus explained. “If they were to do that with a traditional frame relay network it would be a tremendously expensive way to deliver, so they are looking for a more efficient technology to deliver their applications.”

McCamus said the IP-based network will enhance the productivity of HBC’s employees and their ability to understand and communicate in real-time with business information.

The project is currently in the implementation phase, and will rollout through the year. It is expected to take three to four months to be completed.

From a cost perspective, HBC’s Davenport said he is neutral. “We are getting more bandwidth and we are not paying any more for it,” he said. “I don’t consider that a major issue. It’s just something that has to be dealt with.”

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