The Asphalt Of The Information Highway
Don't take networking for granted. Without a good information transportation system, your installations will always be under construction.
POS (point of sale) is fertile ground for networking vendors, but this is often an aspect of the installation that POS VARs take for granted. The outward appearance of networking hardware is arguably the least interesting element of an install. Where techies see endless expansion and interoperation between peripherals, end users see cables and boxes. But save for its lack of aesthetic appeal, networking shouldn't be left out of your sales pitch. Advances in networking technology are clearing the way for changes that end users desire.
Sleeker, Smarter, Farther, Safer
"In the POS market, there's a big drive to reduce the physical form factor of the components on the platform," says Steve Poppovich, VP and general manager for USB connectivity products at DIGI International (Minnetonka, MN). "Taking advantage of USB (universal serial bus) connectivity gives you almost limitless connectivity options." This accommodates the desire to slim the hardware down by eliminating the PCI (peripheral component interconnect) bus. "Instead of a big box in the checkout area, you have a small one," he says.
USB hubs have made the lives of VARs and end users a little easier in terms of maintenance, as well. "If you've got a box versus a board, you don't have to open a PC up to do network maintenance. You don't need any knowledge beyond 'cable 1 goes in port 1, cable 2 goes in port 2,'" says Mitch Friend, director of sales and marketing at Equinox (Sunrise, FL). This empowers end users to do their own troubleshooting and alleviates an unprofitable responsibility for the VAR. No longer must valuable time be spent traveling to simply open up a box and plug in a board.
Tony Morse, business development manager at Comtrol (Maple Grove, MN), advocates serial connectivity using Ethernet. "There are limitations and costs associated with serial cabling," he says. "As stores automate their systems for self-checkout, for example, they have a server running POS-type software in a back room and run the peripherals back to the point of sale. That's cumbersome with serial cabling. Using serial hubs and Ethernet, the server in the back room has no idea the peripherals aren't attached directly to a PC." He adds that the pervasiveness of Ethernet increases the range of serial communications. "We can monitor facilities 2,000 miles away," he says. The ability to monitor, maintain, and repair systems over the network translates into quick response time and reduced support costs for VARs.
Ask an IT guy about enemies of a network, and you'll get some standard answers. Thunderstorms, viruses, and ignorant users frequently top the list. But what about carpets? "Go around a carpeted store with a scanner a few times, and you'll pick up some static," says Poppovich. "With an I/O (input/output) connectivity product, that charge can run upstream to the port and damage it." This can cause all kinds of problems, the end result of any of them sure to be a line of impatient customers waiting for a computer to reboot. So, don't forget the selling point of built-in surge protection that is included in most networking configurations, especially, as Friend puts it, if you're in a "high voltage" area like southern Florida.
The Road Ahead
POS is still the big marketplace for serial I/O, but industrial process control and security are growing markets for networking. "There are still lots of disparate factory automation, process control, and security devices out there that are RS-232 that need to be connected," Friend says.
Morse is looking to a partnership with Enterasys Networks (Rochester, NH) as a catalyst for Comtrol's exploration of wireless serial connectivity. "Right now, Ethernet is a lot faster than wireless, and some recent security breaches in wireless have caused some concern," he says. But the advantages associated with a lack of wires are there and waiting when wireless gets faster and more secure.
At DIGI, Poppovich says the future is in the USB 2.0 specification that increases bandwidth from 12 Mb/s to 480. "There's no end in sight as far as a replacement for USB," he says. "People thought Firewire would, but Firewire is slower than USB 2.0, and USB is open architected."
Whether you call it the plumbing, the nervous system, or the information transportation system, it doesn't matter. As long as you convey that there's more to networking than a bunch of wires and boxes.