Retailers are fiercely fighting a new battle: the demand for the digital-first brick-and-mortar store. Faced with the growing reality that stores are required to deliver in-store, interactive and virtual shopping experiences, retailers need a playbook for how to incorporate technology advancements that can meet these new demands while driving new revenue streams and maintaining operational efficiencies. The software-defined store is the new reality.
Turning the current hardware-centric approach on its head, software-defined stores are best described as “mini-clouds” or “cloudlets,” in which all of the in-store IT resources — servers, networks, applications — are managed and deployed via a web browser and modern UI. Cloud-native technologies like Kubernetes and advances in edge computing make it possible to deploy software-defined stores that provide the agility, flexibility and ease of use of a public cloud, while leveraging the existing infrastructure footprint that already exists in the store.
In the last few years, Kubernetes has emerged as the gold standard platform for application development, specifically for microservices development and container orchestration. For retailers, Kubernetes provides an extremely powerful platform for automation, scalability and cloud-like experience.
- Kubernetes is developer- and automation-friendly. Developers benefit from quick application development, testing and automated rollouts, especially when combined with DevOps workflows and CI/CD toolchains.
- Kubernetes abstracts the underlying infrastructure and eliminates the need for managing individual applications manually for every store. With Kubernetes, retail developers can deploy instances of their containerized applications to hundreds and thousands of stores, data centers and public clouds without major redesign efforts.
- Modern cloud-native applications powered by an open-source ecosystem. With Kubernetes, developers have access to tons of existing open-source tools and community collaboration benefits.
At the same time, retailers must be aware that building software-defined stores with Kubernetes is not devoid of challenges. While Kubernetes offers an initial foundation, it does have several gaps when it comes to addressing the unique challenges of managing geo-distributed retail locations with legacy applications and intermittent connectivity.
Let us dive deeper into exploring these challenges.
Retailers run in-store applications, or legacy applications, in VMs, typically using VMware as the management platform as well as bare metal applications. However, Kubernetes does not natively orchestrate VMs. Adding Kubernetes to orchestrate containers adds another management stack to run, adding to the operational burden and cost. Multiply this by the number of stores that need to be managed and the result is control plane proliferation and inefficiency of siloed management.
Secondly, in-store bare metal is still difficult to manage. Flexibility and agility are impacted when bare metal servers need to be manually managed and scaled across thousands of stores. Since Kubernetes does not manage servers, someone must physically set them up to gain the advantages of Kubernetes.
The last daunting challenge to overcome with Kubernetes is how to centrally manage thousands of stores with intermittent connectivity with regard to deployment, management and upgrades, usually with no staff and little access.
While Kubernetes is great for orchestrating microservices in a cluster, managing thousands of such clusters requires another layer of management and DevOps-style API-driven automation.
Retailers can avoid many of these challenges in their shift to a software-defined store through a managed Kubernetes solution and a SaaS-based central operational paradigm. They can modernize their stores without having to rip-and-replace their existing hardware. Through a managed solution, developers are able to run their existing legacy application while rolling out new innovative cloud-native AI applications using Kubernetes as the underlying cloud fabric.
The software-defined approach flips the current hardware-centric method in the retail industry upside down by offering many tangible benefits, including: quickly delivering innovative applications to address changing customer needs; avoiding expensive hardware investments and refreshes by re-using existing footprint to roll out new applications; and reducing operational costs by having automated and centralized remote management capabilities. While the transition to software-defined stores may seem daunting at first, the process can be seamless with the right technology, foundations and support partners in place.
Kamesh Pemmaraju is Head of Enterprise and Product Marketing at Platform9, where he leads Enterprise/Product marketing. For the past decade, Pemmaraju has been working on various open source private and hybrid cloud solutions. He has helped several enterprises and service providers adopt cloud technologies at scale. Pemmaraju also brings strong product management, technology alliances and go-to-market experience for emerging technologies.