Modern retail consumers expect brick-and-mortar stores to provide a level of service and technological sophistication commensurate with their online counterparts. However, delivering this level of service requires significant IT infrastructure to support key functions and business processes. Customer-facing technologies such as integrated point of sale/CRM, frictionless returns and exchanges, and rewards programs have become mainstream; meanwhile, retailers increasingly seek to benefit from real-time inventory management systems, demand planning, and business intelligence platforms.
While many of these technologies have existed in some form for years, retailers have increasingly shifted their deployments away from centralized data centers and into individual stores, enabling them to deliver these critical functions more effectively. In-store deployments are generally defined as “the edge,” and this has become the tether between in-store interactions and the enterprise network.
How Retailers Are Using the Edge
Edge computing positions IT equipment adjacent to the POS, locating servers, routers, gateways and switches in server closets and micro data centers at the individual store level. By operating from within the store, edge systems enable retailers to directly deliver the latest retail technologies, including cashless checkout stations and self-checkout kiosks, automated demand planning, dynamic pricing, geo-targeted advertising, digital signage, robot re-stockers, and customer analytics.
Edge deployments can also eliminate single points of failure from the overall business system, enhancing business continuity and security. When a centralized function fails, individual stores can continue operating, minimizing the disruption from unplanned downtime and outages at enterprise-owned data centers or cloud hosting providers. Edge computing also enhances security for retailers by enabling them to directly control the storage and transmission of personally identifiable information (PII) and other sensitive information.
Retail Challenges at the Edge
Two major challenges face retailers when deploying edge computing in their store locations: managing the edge equipment and security.
Traditional data centers tend to be staffed and monitored 24/7, but edge deployments are typically “lights out.” This means that the equipment is left alone in a locked server closet or computer room. IT staff aren’t on site and they may not even be physically close to the store. In this situation, it can take critical minutes or hours to service the equipment if something goes wrong. Mitigating this risk and targeting 100 percent uptime requires active remote monitoring of the edge environment and equipment. Ideally, such monitoring systems will operate independent of the existing network topology, so they can continue reporting in all circumstances.
Security is also of particular concern, since edge computing locations are not directly monitored in person. In most deployments, the edge equipment will host and manage a combination of proprietary software, sales and analytics data, customer payment information, and PII. Given the sensitive nature of this data, edge monitoring systems should report on physical breaches of doors and other safety measures and provide location information for critical assets.
Capitalizing at the Edge
It’s clear that edge computing is creating new and improved ways for retailers to maximize operational efficiency and improve customer experiences. However, this distributed retail environment also requires a secure, manageable edge that can be deployed in remote locations without on-site IT support. Doing this effectively requires the ability to monitor each edge deployment from afar, whether in the enterprise data center or a headquarters facility. Edge facilities can only deliver value when they’re working efficiently and effectively, but their successful deployment changes the game for customer experience and effective business operations.
Cameron Lord is CFO of RF Code, where he is responsible for strategic finance and corporate development.