Going Lean

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Management automation combined with virtualization consistency considered the keys to achieving efficiency goals of ambitious growth strategy.

Two IT professionals. A plan to grow to 600 stores within a few years. And a goal to stay efficient without growing resources. Sound ambitious? George Medairy, director of IT at Sheetz, a family-owned convenience store chain with 450 stores across six states, knows it is. But he is also confident that it can be done.

“The basis of our Lean 600 initiative is to do things better, faster, and cheaper without totally re-engineering the company,” says Medairy. “Our business model is quite unique in the industry—we buy and build our own sites, have our own distribution center and kitchen/commissary, make our own donuts/grab-and-go food, and run our own fleet of gas/delivery trucks. IT plays a huge role in pulling it all together and making it work as efficiently as possible.”

Targeting IT Management First
Medairy knew that improvements in areas including IT management could yield some of the Lean 600 efficiencies. Sheetz is a best-in-breed shop, with a wide range of tools from a diverse spectrum of vendors. Corporately, the company had five monitoring systems tracking performance on networks, servers, PCs, bandwidth, throughput, firewalls, and Payment Card Industry (PCI) compliance. And that did not include hardware, software, and activity at the store level. Medairy was concerned with the amount of time being consumed managing systems and wanted to analyze the management ROI of new solutions.

After reviewing the capabilities of Cisco Prime Infrastructure, a converged wired and wireless management solution, Medairy was encouraged with how straightforward, easy, and intuitive it was. But he turned to Bill Bowser, Telecommunications manager at Sheetz, to assess the usability and recommend the value of an ROI evaluation.

“We needed a high level of automation of daily tasks and interactivity in order to maximize the effectiveness of our two-person team that manages 450 stores, multiple connections at every store, LAN/WAN, voice presence, and data centers,” says Bowser.

While converged management is still fairly new in the Sheetz environment, Bowser is excited by the automation potential. Tasks including firewall and router policy changes are now automated, with the capability to check those policies for adherence and efficiency.

With access to automation, a “store in a box” is also one of Bowser’s key initiatives. The goal is to be able to ship equipment to a new store, get an IP address, connect to the Internet, and pull down all of the required configurations from Cisco Prime. Automating a highly manual task is enabling Bowser to bring up stores faster and meet the Lean 600 challenge of doing more with less.

Improved Reporting
Previously, Bowser was using different NetFlow reporting tools, but found that he needed deep expertise and training to build custom reports. With Cisco Prime Infrastructure, he was able to leverage the assurance module, and after 20 minutes of experimenting, generate useful reports.

Specifically, stores were experiencing slow application performance. Using the Cisco Prime standard reporting, Bowser identified that corporate users were pushing more data to stores than the broadband connection could accommodate. Bowser upgraded immediately from the 45mg DS3 to a 100mg connection, and the problems disappeared.

“Cisco Prime Infrastructure has enabled our IT department to become a knowledge base of what’s on our network,” says Bowser. “Prime has simplified management of both the wired and wireless network. This in turn has given us time to use reporting tools and educate our users about their impact on the network. Our management capabilities are light years ahead of what they were before Prime.”

Virtual Store Environment
In addition to management improvements, Medairy is considering Cisco Unified Computing System (UCS) E-Series Server modules to virtualize store-level technology and standardize on one platform. Every store has technology that includes: point of sale system, customer ordering kiosk, kitchen monitor, gas pump transaction system, work order applications, security cameras, credit controller, back-office PC, and a learning management system PC. In addition to running the technology, Sheetz’s PCI compliance mandates require timely patching of the more than 16,000 devices that connect to the network.

“Consolidating to a virtual environment, with one operating system, would give us more control, visibility, and insight,” says Medairy. “We could generate one store profile that extends across all 450 locations. That consistency, in addition to the management automation, will help us meet our efficiency and effectiveness goals of the Lean 600 challenge. Some may call it ambitious IT. I just call it smart business.”