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Pushing the high street to the edge

Thu 18 Jul 2019 | Alan Conboy

Smart Mirror at Ralph Lauren’s Fifth Avenue flagship store in Manhattan

In a world where immediacy is the big consumer model, there’s no time for the latency that occurs when data travels to and from remote data centres or the cloud

In the last year alone the UK has seen the struggle, decline, and collapse of iconic high street retail brands such as BHS, Toys R Us, and Poundworld. This is not the last time it will happen, and many other high street brands are at risk as they continue to fall short of data-driven online competitors. 

The digital operations of online retailers mean they are often a few steps ahead of the bricks and mortar shops because these translate easily to driving necessary IT transformations. Challenges like bottlenecks, cyber security, online traffic spikes, order tracking, and application SLAs all play a part in how internet retailers plot IT infrastructure efforts and resources. 

In response, many bricks and mortar retailers are turning to IT digital transformation technologies like edge computing and hyperconverged infrastructure (HCI). These technologies will help them meet changing consumer demands, and support a more scalable, secure, and resilient in-store infrastructure that fully utilises valuable data and machine intelligence, to the benefit of both retailer and consumer alike.

Staying ahead of the curve is critical in the retail industry, especially when it comes to ‘shopper experience’. So, having the latest IT strategies should be front of mind for online and high street retailers alike, as it could be the difference between closing down, or successfully disrupting in a pressured industry. Technologies such as edge computing and HCI can help retailers prepare for dramatic changes in buyer behaviours, and future-proof their business in an ever-evolving industry.

The foundations of HCI

Too often retailers are still using the exact same technologies they deployed a decade ago, with things like POS systems, servers, and a sprinkling of external storage commonly collecting dust, and restricting innovation. 

The more forward-thinking retailers have virtualised their infrastructure, introducing in-store Wi-Fi, digital promotions, and security applications. But all of these extras are more frill than substance and don’t tackle the heart of the problem; which is that many of these retailers are still collecting, transporting, storing, and processing their data across data centres that are hundreds of miles away. 

In an age when an app on your phone can provide information and offers for in-store merchandise suited to you at the very second you walk past the shelf, the kind of latency that comes with these distant data centres is simply not cutting it. But neither is the latency of the all-singing, all-dancing cloud. 

Not just that, but if a server failure occurs in just one of those data centres, it could affect the whole chain of stores. This kind of downtime would be catastrophic for retailers online, and the same attitude should be applied to those on the high-street. Not to mention that their IT infrastructure often consists of third-party solutions each hosted on different clouds, making visibility and management complicated and time-consuming.

“The greatest value of HCI is that it brings compute and storage where the action is – in the retail store”

To combat this, HCI could enable each shop to effectively have its own data centre onsite, powering it and keeping critical applications running. HCI can be smaller than a single fridge, taking up significantly less space than a whole data centre full of servers. HCI combines high-performance servers and storage in one appliance that operates as an onsite scaled-down data centre. 

HCI appliances are not difficult to set up and manage, eliminating the need for onsite IT experts. They’re much smaller than traditional data centres but with the same (and sometimes more) power to run applications when and where they’re needed. When connected with disaster recovery solutions they help reduce downtime and mitigate failures. 

The greatest value of HCI is that it brings compute and storage where the action is – in the retail store. This means the data centre is closest to where applications are used and where data is collected, stored and processed. This is also known as edge computing. 

The move to the edge

Gathering, processing, and storing data at the edge of the network is instant, instead of sending data hundreds of miles away to a data centre, or up into an unreliable cloud, and that is the real benefit of edge technology. 

It is a simple concept with a big reward. Think of automated driving, if the sensor recognises that a car has stopped ahead, with data processed in a traditional data centre or sent up to the cloud, that information would take its time travelling over wireless networks before the car receives the instruction to stop. However, with an edge computing device onboard, the analysis and instructions are instant.   

Edge computing can play a similarly critical role in IT innovation strategies for retailers. It can enable compute, applications, and storage resources to be accessible at the store where they are needed, utilised, and where the data is gathered. 

IoT insights

The billions of sensors scattered around the world are funnelling data to data centres to be collected and processed. The data analysis group Statista predicts there will be more than 31 billion IoT devices in operation by 2020. McKinsey estimates that the potential economic impact of IoT in retail environments will range from $410 billion to $1.2 trillion per year by 2025.

For the retail industry, these IoT devices can be used to report how frequently customers enter a building, what items they looked at, and for how long they held their attention. The technology can also determine and adjust the temperature of a food store’s fridges and freezers, operate automated checkouts, and use the data on customers’ phones to personalise discounts.

IoT sensors, HCI, and edge computing, deployed in combination, have the greatest potential to produce valuable customer insights and information that could put many high street retailers on par with online stores. But, the only way that any of these clever uses will truly work is by ensuring that the data from every IoT device is collected and processed within seconds. 

In a world where immediacy is the big consumer model, there’s no time for the latency that occurs when data travels to and from remote data centres, or even to the cloud. All of the critical insights and instructions that will benefit the retail sector can happen in real time and in the same place when HCI, edge computing, and IoT sensors are deployed.

Experts featured:

Alan Conboy

Office of the CTO
Scale Computing

Tags:

edge computing hci retail
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