The retail edge is larger than what we traditionally understand by “retail”, says Jamie Bourassa, vice president of edge computing for the IT division of Schneider Electric. It is also a very different world to traditional IT.
To emphasise the size, he says: “We prefer to talk about ‘consumer facing’. If you just think of traditional retail, you miss a lot of places, like hospitals, which have retail style kiosks.”
Vast range of organizations
A vast range of enterprises have consumer-facing applications, he says.
And these new consumer experiences require a digital infrastructure and must somehow perform a balancing act. They have to provide the reliability and security that has been painstakingly developed in traditional IT environments, but they must deliver it in an entirely new distributed environment, where people throng and bustle, but where there is no IT department.
The only consolation is that the technology is now well understood, says Bourassa: “We have sold a tremendous amount of infrastructure supporting customers. We’ve worked with airlines digitizing check-in kiosks, stores digitizing checkout desks, and banks digitizing tellerless services. In that time, we have learned that the digital journey that a CIO has to go through is dependent on just a few different technologies.”
Every deployment is individual, and the use case may be unique, but the core building blocks are similar from one to the next. The fundamental technologies are almost identical.
The new consumer experience
At the same time as technology is changing, retail and other consumer-facing sectors are all developing. They are moving to an “omnichannel” world, where the physical experience in a store or a hospital or any other location is augmented by a parallel online experience. Neither the brick-and-mortar shop, nor the website will exist in isolation.
The physical store and the online world will be intertwined. It starts with an email that gets the customer into the store with a 20 percent instore discount offer; once inside the store, beacons and interactive marketing help the customer find the right product, compare it with what is available elsewhere, and encourage a sale. Loyalty points establish a following for a brand - and may sometimes clinch the deal.
These consumer experiences are sometimes a small tweak on established technologies for cash registers, point of sale terminals and websites. But they need a team to deliver the underlying applications. There will be a real estate manager, and an IT manager responsible for management and maintenance of all the devices. In areas like healthcare, there will be specialists dealing with specific devices. Overseeing this will be a CIO, accompanied by network specialists connecting systems together.
Along with these roles there will be new job types created by the new consumer experiences. Facility-based people have become more aware of digital techniques: “We see an additional persona jumping in,” says Bourassa. “There is a blurring of the lines of what are traditional facilities and IT roles.”
In the last few years, change has accelerated as customer facing experiences move from being an add-on or a novelty, to becoming intrinsic to the business.
For instance some stores have interactive digital signage. At first they were a toy, but now customers come into the store, just to use the displays.
On a more basic level, restaurants have mobile credit card terminals for payment at the table This is the norm in Europe; in the US it started as a convenience, but is now an essential. “If the credit card terminals go down, they have no other way to take my money,” says Bourassa. “The digital experience has become embedded in the core experience.”
One huge difference between these applications and traditional IT is the location. Old-style back-end applications are in a data center where the public does not enter. The new applications are in the thick of humanity, in locations like stores which are actively maximizing footfall.
But despite the throngs of humanity, there’s one person that isn’t there on-site - and that is the IT engineer.
A store with thousands of locations cannot afford to have IT personnel on every site. So equipment for the consumer-facing edge relies on remote monitoring and management: “It has to be 99 percent hands free,” says Bourassa. “All these things have ended up in distributed spaces, where there are no IT people.”
Some organizations found this out the hard way. They tried to deploy technology by sending IT professionals to every store, to configure new systems. The system quickly got overloaded, and the company went back to the drawing board, and built fully converged systems in a warehouse, configured them and deployed them ready to run.
Where there is still a need for some IT support on site, it has to be planned and predictable. Some organizations subscribe to a managed service for IT, while others have a weekly truck roll, where an IT person visits different regions on a schedule. All this can be very costly to do. “You can't be maintenance free, but how do you limit it to a reasonable cost?” asks Bourassa.
Essentially, these demands will change the way technology is designed. Hardware will include more swappable components, and large systems will be more simplistic for serviceability.
The technology must also deliver levels of reliability at least as good as traditional IT. Consumer-facing experiences can handle planned maintenance, but must avoid unplanned downtime during peak hours at all costs.
This drive will push newer technologies into the fray. For instance, lithium ion batteries are more expensive than the established technology, valve regulated lead acid (VRLA) batteries. However, they have a very low servicing rate, and provide remote management. They can effectively be made so they never need servicing.
It will also need the support of existing management systems such as Schneider’s EcoStruxure(TM), which can handle management of multiple vendors’ equipment in real time.
Another significant factor for consumer facing experience is - not surprisingly - security. Increased digitized interactions with customers open up more risks for breach of personal data.
Around 30 percent of breaches happen because an attacker has of direct access to IT infrastructure, sometimes from a network access point. A lot of security work can be done by locking up the system in software, but physical security also has a massive role to play.
The global security standards for those handling credit cards, PCI DSS (payment card industry data security standard) include a part (section 9) covering physical security. A range of options can meet these requirements, including biometric security for access and CCTV. Companies that can’t meet these requirements may find they can’t get insurance.
Risks and opportunities
Bringing in new technology can be driven by multiple goals. For instance, kiosks and self-service checkouts can increase revenue through cross selling, or they may be useful in reducing human errors. They may simply have the aim of reducing the need for trained staff.
Whatever the justification, any technology will be assessed and justified by its return on investment (RoI). And a focus on reliability and security of the infrastructure will increase the likelihood that that calculation will be positive.
People have come to expect IT to be reliable, when it was delivered from the protected environment of a data center. Now it is being distributed throughout the enterprise, offering consumer-facing experiences.
This new world can only succeed if we overcome a huge challenge: these new distributed systems must be as reliable as those we have come to know before, while operating in a completely new environment.
That's a big ask, but there are plenty of projects and deployments which are achieving exactly this.