If Josh Hebert thinks back to August two years ago, this is what he remembers: servers and routers stacked on top of refrigerators; systems engineers wrangling packing tape onto shipping containers at every hour of the day and night — after configuring each and every piece of gear within; and in the middle of it all, Hebert himself hustling to tally tech components on a spreadsheet before approving them for delivery and installation at new PrimeLending, a PlainsCapital company, branch offices.
“In late summer of 2010, we needed to assemble the network infrastructure for onboarding 30 new branches within a month,” says Hebert, vice president and IT director for the Dallas-based residential mortgage company. The all-tech-hands-on-deck approach that PrimeLending used, driven by necessity, was neither scalable nor sustainable long term.
The quick-growing company has come a long way since then in terms of how it handles branch openings.
Today, after partnering with CDW, PrimeLending has an end-to-end branch launch and support program that it calls “branch in a box.” The company can turn around a branch opening in less than two weeks, using this reliable and repeatable process to deliver a standard systems and network suite that Hebert describes as practically plug and play.
“But it’s not just about equipment,” says Lisa Loreto, branch integration manager at PrimeLending. “It’s about leveraging CDW’s functional expertise as a subject-matter expert and as a dedicated member of our team.”
Now, after PrimeLending’s IT team issues an automated request to CDW, preconfigured networking gear in a cabinet, along with any end-user systems, drop-ship on a pallet directly to each new location. CDW manages the inventory, works closely with PrimeLending on configuration requirements and — after installation — ensures software and patches remain up to date.
“Overall, branch-in-a-box allows us to focus on strategic initiatives in technology,” Hebert says. “It keeps us from getting bogged down with assembly-line processes. Plus, there are scalability aspects and support that we could not have otherwise.”
This type of remote-office launch is an attractive, proven strategy that’s suitable for SMBs of all sizes and industry types, says Bob Laliberte, senior analyst at the Enterprise Strategy Group. “When an organization standardizes on a solution, it helps accelerate time value,” he says. “This is especially true at highly distributed organizations.”
PrimeLending, which today is edging toward 300 locations and 2,300 employees, developed two types of branch boxes, one for large locations and one for small. To speed service and repair, all cabinets contain a standard set of technologies with an asset tag on the outside.
What’s inside the box is influenced by the telecommunications connectivity supplied to each branch, Hebert explains. “Large branches, which support five or more employees, use a multiprotocol label switching communications pipe back to the company’s headquarters,” he says. “Small branches typically have two or three employees connected to headquarters by either DSL or cable, depending on availability and cost.”
PrimeLending also selects components based on cost-effectiveness, reliability and compatibility with its core network.
Estimated savings on help desk costs by implementing a branch-in-a-box strategy
“We’re a Cisco networking and HP hardware shop, primarily,” Hebert says. “In the data center, we use HP blades that are about 90 percent virtualized. Our desktops and laptops are all HP, running Microsoft Windows 7. For storage, we have a NetApp storage area network.”
All of the PrimeLending branch-in-a-box components come housed in a 12U Tripp Lite SmartRack. The gear includes Power over Ethernet Cisco Catalyst 2960 switches with either 24 or 48 ports (depending on a branch’s needs), a Cisco 2901 router, an HP ProLiant DL120 G7 server, a USRobotics Courier Business Modem, an APC Smart-UPS uninterruptible power supply and Tripp Lite Category 6 snagless cabling.
Small branches receive a 24-port Cisco switch and a Juniper Networks Secure Services Gateway 5 firewall for secure connectivity over the Internet. For end users, PrimeLending standardized on HP TouchSmart Elite 7320 all-in-one desktops and Cisco 7942G Unified IP phone sets.
With her team managing as many as 20 branch openings at any time, Loreto says benefits from outsourcing can’t be understated. CDW is “just as accountable as we are if something goes wrong. They have the same skin in the game,” she says. Because somebody’s keeping track of PrimeLending’s inventory at the CDW warehouse in Vernon Hills, Ill., “that’s peace of mind on the tactical side,” Loreto says.
Additionally, from a security perspective, the company’s IT department can now tightly integrate security across its mobile, branch and headquarters systems, Hebert says.
“This allows for extending intrusion detection and prevention tools,” he adds. Plus, beyond setting up branches, the company can bring on new employees anywhere, at any location, in less than 72 hours.
“Just the speed of commissioning branches and employees speaks to why we got out of the business of doing it all by ourselves,” Hebert says. “We estimate a 30 percent savings on labor alone.”