In modern times, when you need to buy something – be it a hardware tool to fix your house plumbing or a treat for your pet – people’s first preferred option is typically to find it online. There are very few brick-and-mortar stores left that can cater to the fast speed that today’s consumer has come to expect. Tractor Supply Company is one such organization bucking this trend.
Tractor Supply Company is the largest rural lifestyle retail store in America, supplying everything customers need to maintain their farms, ranches, homes and animals. The company has 1,800 stores in 49 states and a thriving online e-commerce store. With annual revenues of $7.91 billion, the company is on an aggressive growth trajectory, with a long-term goal of 2,500 stores.
Tractor Supply Company built a carrier-class, multi-service network and high-performance data centers to support their nearly 2,000 stores, 10 distribution centers and e-commerce operations. Their network infrastructure priorities were very similar to what we surveyed for the 2019 SoNAR report, including automation and increased demand for IT to deliver more with less. With simplified network operations and lowered network support costs, Tractor Supply Company is redefining how retail stores can make a comeback and still be successful.
We sat down with Raymond Beaudoin, Senior Network Architect at Tractor Supply Company, to chat about his company’s success and how they came to achieve it.
Q: How do you think the approaches enterprises are taking to networking today differ from how things were done in the past?
A: Today, the networking industry is moving faster than ever before. As the practices used by application developers are adopted, the entire lifecycle of network hardware and software is evolving. Although previously there was a sense of pride in boasting about the uptime on a piece of network equipment and living by the “set it and forget it” mentality, the continuous integration continuous delivery (CI/CD) model is pushing an accelerated growth of DevNetOps and building environments that are instead focused on “automation first”.
In addition, mobile technologies are creating exponential demand for hardware, software and bandwidth scalability, even throughout the enterprise. In the retail sector, for example, customers expect services such as free Wi-Fi, especially in rural markets. This is changing the entire dynamic of networking for our enterprise, pushing us to offer services to meet the needs of both our internal and external customers.
Q: What are the hardest parts about networking in modern day? Why do you think so?
A: The hardest parts about networking today are the ever-changing demands of business, driven by the need to remain relevant and ahead of the competition. This includes keeping up with the scalability demand of our IT partners, while remaining cost efficient and providing networking solutions at a pace that serves all our customers and partners who have an expectation for instant gratification.
The continued popularity of public clouds, including Azure, GCP, and AWS, challenges traditional network resources to rethink their strategies and design new communication infrastructures that support multicloud and hybrid cloud connectivity. While previously forecasting for internal bandwidth utilization and managing of backbone connectivity inside the private cloud was important, the need for highly available, quick-to-scale connectivity to public cloud providers – and the third parties who leverage them – is now critical.
The days of requiring 60-90 days for a circuit turn up are long gone. Instead, a common theme seen across our industry today is the introduction of quick provision platforms with easy-to-use APIs to allow for on-the-fly adjustments to circuit speeds and connectivity between networks. This further challenges the traditional mindset of networking to move away from being “in the command line” to automating everything.
Without automation, the network team becomes an immediate bottleneck to the agile nature of IT. Automation is a long journey, but those who embark down this path are able to deliver at speeds similar to the public cloud providers and allow for resources to be more focused on forward thinking rather than day-to-day operations.
Q: In what ways have users’ increased expectations affected networking companies’ staffing models to appropriately meet demand?
A: Business-oriented networking is shifting the current workforce to an “always-on” mentality. What this means for networking is that even with an 8×5 staffing model, the business expects infrastructure to be delivered without hesitation – and their mindset is driven by the need to satisfy customers who have the same expectations.
This level of demand reinforces the need for the networking industry to continue to operate in a services model. By identifying common services offered to our customers and focusing on ways to create automated solutions delivery, the business can continue to scale at the same pace. This can happen in a public, private or hybrid cloud, without traditional infrastructure and networking blocking.
Q: What advice would you have for aspiring tech pros who are interested in the networking industry?
A: Above all, learn the foundational components of networking. Having core networking knowledge helps you become a more capable troubleshooter and this skill will be invaluable throughout your career.
Once you understand the foundations networking is built upon, challenge yourself to learn the basics of programming. There are a plethora of resources available to learn the basics.
When searching for talent, those who demonstrate an ability to program or have experience with automation tools are a step ahead. Even if your networking-specific experience is limited, understanding how to convert manual operations to automated tasks and having the capacity to think about networking as “code” primes you for the future of our industry and makes you immediately marketable.