The benefits of bringing IT to the edge – the retail use case

An increasing amount of IT-related column inches are taken up by the ‘post-cloud’ world; where everything from self-driving cars to industrial machinery is creating exponential data growth and real-time computing requirements for which the cloud is entirely the wrong tool.      

Enter ‘Edge IT’, which is generally thought of as everything outside the data centre and cloud environments. Of course, we already have this type of IT, which leads us to pose the question: what is the industry ‘re-imagining’ Edge IT to be? 

An illustrative example of the post-cloud world that is often used is the self-driving car. The amount of data generated by such vehicles is immense, and by definition needs immediate analysis and reaction; for example, “Parked car ahead – apply brakes”. How reassured would you be if all vehicle-generated data had to be back-hauled to a data centre for action? You need to act immediately, locally and reliably, and this requires a new definition of Edge-IT.

However, it’s more instructive from a business point of view to pick a business example, and retail is a good one. Edge IT can be viewed through the lens of retailers who either have branches with an added online business, or who have an online business and are adding branches. Here the requirement remains speed of action and reliability, but is better couched in terms of business responsiveness and flexibility.   

Retailers have Edge IT for traditional requirements like point of sale (POS), inventory management, back office staff systems and CCTV, and also for newer requirements like scan-as-you-shop, digital shelf edge, digital signage, RFID and even shelf sensors with machine image recognition

Retailers with multiple branches spread across a wide geography have struggled to find in-store IT infrastructure that enables the business to run the advanced branch applications they increasingly need, while making the IT infrastructure simpler and easier to manage. Historically, many of these businesses have had to put up with frustratingly inefficient processes and limitations that do not match up to requirements, from business, operations and customer perspectives.   

The traditional in-store infrastructure (retail’s Edge IT) of PCs, servers and device components assembled over time can present real operational issues, and often cannot serve expanding business applications. Multiple computing appliances running multiple applications, each with their own operating system, management system, and security system can lead to operational nightmares for the IT team, with expensive and laborious site visits and high-skill systems integration work. They also raise justifiable concerns over on-going security, compliance and reliability – in the very location where the revenue rubber hits the road.  

The recent spate of ransomware attacks has highlighted the damage to reputation that can be caused if best efforts to maintain secure branch IT systems cannot be effectively demonstrated. The damage to the business, both in terms of reputational damage and loss of revenue, is significant. Branch IT infrastructure is very different from the data centre - the Edge is a hostile environment, and a radically different set of tools and techniques need to be used to keep it current.  

From a business standpoint, disparate and inflexible IT systems diminish the ability to act quickly to deploy new stores and new lines of business in response to rapidly changing customer demands. If a retailer is looking to upgrade POS systems, for example, they may have to configure and deploy each site separately, writing scripts for remote execution and often sending tech support to site. With something like this, high costs and frequent delays are normal. 

Some components of a retailer’s Edge IT may have been centralised in a data centre or cloud, but the real issues, including latency, performance, network availability and costs too often make this the wrong tool for the job. With additional new data-hungry and low latency application requirements arriving in the store, this Edge IT challenge is magnified.      

And just as a data centre is the wrong tool for Edge requirements, taking servers and software designed for a data centre environment and distributing them to the Retail Edge is like the old adage – if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.  Edge IT requires different tools. These tools have to be designed for the Edge, not the data centre, and have to focus on the issues of effective management, control and updating in a distributed and often hostile branch IT environment. In-branch solutions must be able to operate efficiently in a distributed branch environment. 

Data centre infrastructure is designed to provide and manage scale-out environments in environmentally controlled, relatively high bandwidth and resource-rich environments.  Edge infrastructure by contrast is designed to be ‘stamped out’ tens, hundreds or thousands of times to a consistent template, and distributed to relatively resource-poor, low bandwidth environments where they must operate reliably and be kept secure for years.  Deploying the wrong system  can mean massive cost, performance and reliability differences when multiplied over many sites.  

To deliver the IT retailers need – powerful in-store IT without complex in-store management and support challenges – what’s required is a redefinition of computing capabilities in the branch, at the edge. This new branch IT must be fully virtualised to run all applications, centrally managed to lift the support burden, and easily deployed and adapted across a variable quality distributed network to deliver cloud levels of business flexibility.   

Taking it to the edge 

Edge IT is coming of age. The requirements for retail store technology is a prime example and will only increase as retailers strive to deliver enhanced customer experiences, process significant volumes of data in real time, and ultimately drive greater operational and cost efficiencies.  

Advanced, virtualised and managed Edge-based solutions, using integrated compute, storage and networking technology, are both taking over from the old Edge IT and transforming to enable the new requirements of an ever-connected environment. In a packaged retail branch form factor, this will mean standardised delivering of the performance, flexibility and operational efficiency that retailers are now demanding to meet the needs of their customers and their business.   

Nick East, CEO, Zynstra 

Image Credit: Zapp2Photo / Shutterstock