For many retail organizations, individual stores are spread far and wide, oftentimes with thousands of locations. In any given store location, there are many applications and Internet of Things (IoT) devices running simultaneously to maintain business operations, security and more. These applications and devices include point of sale (POS) systems, video surveillance recordings, back office applications, inventory management software, digital signage and food service automation — to name a few.
In order to stay competitive in a landscape where every retailer is looking for an edge to attract and retain customers, a flexible technical architecture that can easily handle change is crucial for business continuity. The successful IT management of multiple stores in various locations is important for managing application uptime, data production and storage without the need for onsite IT support in each store location.
IT Challenges Facing Retail
The challenges plaguing IT managers of retail stores range from limited or no IT staff on-site to lack of budget allocation. Retailers have a need to introduce the latest technologies into their company infrastructure in order to stay competitive — such as POS systems collecting customer data, digital signage, and in-store ordering systems to reduce customer wait times.
These new applications significantly increase the amount of mission-critical data that must be processed, analyzed and stored. To fully utilize the valuable insights that information from these systems can provide, the data must be processed and analyzed locally. Cloud storage options offer many benefits for users, but for those organizations requiring real-time data processing, cloud storage and corporate data centers typically have become too slow, costly and tedious to administer.
Compounding these challenges is the fact that consequences such as downtime or lost information is a serious issue for retail environments. Any glitch or system failure results in lost sales and the possibility of lost customers, as consumers are no longer willing to put their faith in a store that is unprepared and wastes their time.
Virtualization Stays Ahead Of Retail IT Challenges
Virtualization allows retailers to maintain and run multiple virtual servers using only one or two physical servers, saving the company space, time, energy and above all, money. The days of needing to deploy a new hardware platform for every idea the marketing department wants to implement are over. Given the constant environment of budget constraints and increasingly complicated regulatory mandates, scalable virtual solutions help CIOs and IT managers remain flexible in deploying new business initiatives and future tasks.
As the technology landscape continues to evolve, there has been a rise in the implementation of “edge computing,” often mentioned in relation to IoT or artificial intelligence. So what is edge computing and how does it fit into a retail environment? It describes computing that’s conducted at or near the source of data, always outside the datacenter. Described simply, it shortens the distance that data must travel between points A and B. As virtual solutions continue to improve, every device connected to the Internet will be affected: online TV/movie streaming won’t need to buffer, web sites will load faster, POS systems won’t glitch and your electronic devices will perform better.
The other major benefit edge computing brings into a retail environment is simplicity. Proper solutions will enable IT generalists to troubleshoot and support every problem or initiative in place, thanks to the simplicity introduced by the implementation of these edge solutions. This is a big change from other hardware-oriented methods that require one or more IT specialists to solve each issue onsite.
Practical Applications In The Retail Environment
Virtualization can be a game-changer for retail environments. For example, if organizational leadership and marketing teams have determined that introducing digital signage will improve customer satisfaction and speed up a company’s ability to change and roll out new offerings, the task will either become very easy or quite complicated, depending on the technical infrastructure. If an organization’s setup has yet to go virtual, its IT managers must not only install the new digital signs, but also buy and install new computers and servers to run them.
For those companies that have deployed virtual solutions, IT managers would simply create a new virtual server to support the digital signage, and in short order this new tactic will be up and running. Virtualization customers have been able to roll out their new solutions at 50 (or more) different locations per night, making the new initiatives easy to roll out and time to market short, even for the largest retailers. The other major benefit is cost savings, as once the infrastructure is in place, changes and updates are easy, allowing updates to be made for low or no cost.
For large home improvement retailers and supermarket chains, creating a virtual storage structure allows the merchant to provide more efficient and reliable services for customers and streamline processes for staff, among other things.
For those retailers that plan to begin or continue their digital transformation, or simply need to add new functionality to their stores, creating a foundation that is flexible, low-cost and doesn’t require massive staffing to support is paramount. Here are some actionable steps that retailers can take to build this kind of store infrastructure:
- Take inventory of all the hardware platforms currently in each store and figure out how to eliminate all of them during your next store IT refresh project. Work with solution providers and/or vendors to architect a server hardware infrastructure, virtual server and storage software system that will provide the platform you’ll need for the next three to five years.
- Just two decades ago, retailers were practically forced to deploy large, costly external disk arrays to add performance. Today, they can keep the number of servers to the bare minimum required to support the performance needed in stores. Be sure to use the internal server storage inherent in a virtual storage system instead of adding to your hardware footprint.
- Have your IT department start testing the current in-store applications running as a virtual machine on this new platform. There should be very few interoperability issues, but testing is key.
- Deploy a new application as a virtual machine as a test. Choose one that previously would have required its own dedicated hardware and see how easy it is to roll out new digital projects.
- Once you’re convinced that this new platform will meet the needs of the stores, build a rollout plan for as many locations as possible in the shortest amount of time. Look for solutions that only require minimal on-site work to deploy (i.e. set up the new hardware, connect to the network then leave). All other deployment, including virtual servers, virtual storage, operating systems and applications should be done from a central location.
To properly prepare for the advent of the various IoT devices promised to revolutionize the retail industry, organizations must ensure that the proper, virtualized storage infrastructure is in place to support such technologies. Virtualization will help retailers incorporate this type of technology for organizational gain, supporting back-of-house logistics, inventory and category management and store associate labor — all from one remote location. Virtual storage is one way to make the complex simple for retailers managing technology.
Bruce Kornfeld is GM-Americas for StorMagic. He is an experienced technology executive who has held leadership roles in marketing, alliances and business development in the storage, server, networking and software industries. He joined StorMagic in 2017 as CMO, and today serves as general manager of the Americas, where he is responsible for the Americas region sales and go-to-market strategy, as well as global strategic alliances and marketing. Prior to joining StorMagic, Kornfeld held marketing leadership positions at Compellent, Dell and NCR. He helped Compellent grow its revenue from $9M to more than $150M, which led to their IPO and eventual sale to Dell for $960M, and was instrumental in building and growing Dell’s first storage division to over $1bn.