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The Right Connection


Interactive, Web-based services that enable shoppers to create customized merchandise are helping Ritz Camera & Image boost its already-popular photofinishing reputation. By adding a solution that monitors network traffic, Ritz can ensure that custom projects don’t trump the delivery and processing of everyday mission-critical information needed to keep the chain up and running.

Ritz, which continues to hold its own in the sluggish economy, credits its RitzPix digital services as a strong contributor that is bolstering the service and quality its shoppers have grown accustomed to. By accessing , shoppers can exploit their inner shutterbug through interactive services such as digital photo printing and custom photo books, cards and calendars.

After creating their merchandise online, shoppers pay for their order and choose the store where they will pick up the merchandise. This information passes through the chain’s data center, which transmits the information to the proper Ritz location for fulfillment.

The move to more digital products may be building shopper loyalty, but it also creates strains on Ritz’s private area network.

“Our bulk imaging traffic mixes with regular business traffic, and since imaging transmissions are quite a bit larger, they often monopolize connections,” said D. Michael Smith, senior network engineer, Ritz Camera, Beltsville, Md., which operates some 300 stores.

Clearly, it is imperative that customer orders make their way through the network, but the chain’s sales data, credit card transactions and authorization, and accounting information are time-sensitive and paramount to keeping Ritz competitive.

“The challenge is the ‘big guy always wins,’ so it is not uncommon for bulk transfers to overpower more time-sensitive information,” Smith explained.

It is an issue Ritz has tried to solve a number of ways. The chain uses NetFlow, a network protocol developed by San Jose, Calif.-based Cisco. Installed within routers, the solution collects Web-based networking traffic movement data and generates reports for end users. The downside is that while the solution does reveal delays on the network, it cannot report latency information or details of what is causing delays.

The chain also installed a networking version of “sniffers,” or probing software that monitors network traffic. While these units were able to detect issues, they are self-contained, which makes it a very expensive and impractical solution to use across more than 300 store locations.

And when all else failed, it was not uncommon for Ritz to upgrade the size of the pipeline between stores and the data center. This, too, proved costly, and “throwing money at a problem is a very inefficient way to operate a business,” Smith said.

That’s why two years ago, Smith began evaluating the power of Scrutinizer from Sanford, Maine-based Plixer International. By analyzing and reporting on the applications, conversations, flows, protocols, domains and geographic parameters occurring across all of the chain’s routers and switches, the solution’s powerful functionality provides Ritz with a true picture of its network traffic.

“With a clear view of our traffic flow, we can add rules and parameters that allow us to prioritize and accommodate bandwidth so that our most critical information can get through the pipeline,” Smith explained.

The unobtrusive solution, which Smith likened to “a stepchild waiting for attention,” sits and collects data that is filtered into a database. Unlike stagnant pie charts or tables of data, the solution delivers reports in circular graphic charts with color-coded path lines to illustrate incoming and outgoing traffic. Users can rotate the graphic to follow the traffic, giving them an accurate view into immediate network problems—a quick way to help identify and resolve DoS (denial of service) attacks, bottlenecks, network scans and improperly terminated connections.

“We used to run into a flood of unknown traffic and weren’t sure where it was coming from or why it was occurring,” he reported. “By combining this high-level interface with internal telecommunications policies, we can quickly pinpoint traffic issues, and now we only make revisions and changes to our network when there is an issue that needs to be addressed.”

Besides reducing the number of help desk calls from stores, the chain is only investing in bandwidth upgrades on an as-needed basis, according to a spokesman from Plixer.

The chain is currently applying Scrutinizer to its network intrusion detection operations. “The retail environment faces risk from external and internal threats,” Smith said. “The solution allows us to mitigate potential incidents directly, and offers forensics reports to analyze post-event.”

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