The IT Transformation Challenges Retailers Must Overcome to Stay Competitive
Blog: Solutions Review - Business Process Management
As part of Solutions Review’s Contributed Content Series—a collection of articles written by industry thought leaders in maturing software categories—Prashanth Nanjundappa, the VP of Product Management at Progress, examines the IT transformation challenges retailers must overcome to stay competitive in their market.
Adopting AI and edge technologies has led to unprecedented growth and transformation in the retail industry. This shift has moved computing infrastructure from the cloud to the edge, providing transformational digital experiences to customers and allowing data collection and processing at the source. This, in turn, enables on-site workers to offer quick and seamless customer experiences. In 2021, the global smart retail devices market size was valued at $31,746 million, with an estimated growth rate of 17.2 percent during the forecast period (2022-2030). IDC predicts that the number of apps at the edge will increase by 800 percent by 2024.
As edge adoption increases, IT teams face the challenge of effectively managing software on these devices due to the following:
Connectivity, Limited Disk Space, and Scale
In an environment like a store or a warehouse, internet connectivity can be unpredictable, leading to frequent download failures. Additionally, limited disk space and device computing power contribute to these failures. With no technical support staff present, the only means of identifying issues is through store help desk calls.
Lack of Visibility
Often, retailers do not know what happens on devices in a remote location like a store. If an update is pushed, there is no way to know if that was pushed successfully unless they check with the store personnel. They deploy applications and hope that it is deployed and running successfully. When an application is deployed to a device, if the device is shut down or undergoing a restart at that moment, it could result in a failure that the Ops team has no visibility into.
Misconfigurations and Security Issues
A device in a store or warehouse setting can be affected by various incidents such as physical damage, unintentional alteration of settings by employees, or even theft. Since multiple personnel may access the same device, security breaches can occur, potentially exposing sensitive data such as customer identification and credit card information.
Why is a problem at the Edge larger than the traditional data center/cloud?
The problem at the edge is more significant than that of the traditional data center/cloud because the servers in the data center/cloud have stable internet connectivity and no direct interaction with users, making them less susceptible to security threats and misconfigurations. Every tiny issue at the edge requires manual intervention, and the problem gets magnified due to the device’s location, connectivity challenges, limited disk space, and a lack of technical ground staff.
Retailers cannot tolerate upgrade failures or performance issues that result in sales slowdowns during peak hours or affect customer satisfaction. Typically, teams lack a unified method to oversee the overall health of their devices, including factors such as uptime, application versions, deployment success rates, and security.
Numerous organizations invest significant time and effort in manually managing software at the edge or attempting to create and maintain in-house solutions to address edge computing challenges. Yet they still encounter deployment and security issues that impede innovation and growth. For retailers, the primary focus is selling goods to customers and delivering exceptional customer experiences. Consequently, their investment should be directed towards innovating and creating systems that provide outstanding customer experiences rather than being preoccupied with deploying software, configuring devices, and ensuring their security, particularly as the number of smart devices in stores and warehouses continues to increase.
There are a couple of things dev teams can do to orchestrate a far more efficient edge application delivery. One concerns the topic of team collaboration, and the other has to do with borrowing some DevOps and ‘Everything as Code” best practices.
Transform Software Distribution at the Edge with Improved Coordination between Teams
Collaboration will play a significant role in edge application delivery. IT should distribute the application deployment and management responsibility between the Dev, Security, and Ops teams. Every developer should package their application with all required build and runtime dependencies as per guidelines set up by Ops teams. Developers should also include security policies as advised by security teams in a human-readable code-first manner so that anybody can review or make changes if needed.
To reduce the testing effort for the Dev teams, Ops teams can include all application build and runtime dependencies while packaging. This will also ensure that the application can run reliably and consistently when deployed and help create artifacts that require minimal time and effort to maintain throughout their lifespan.
Package applications in a lightweight manner so they can be deployed easily and are suitable for running on devices with limited disk space. Finally, retailers should establish deployment patterns tailored to business requirements and manage software across multiple geographic locations.
Do More with Less
Retail organizations should focus on improving customer experiences, not on configuring devices. IT teams should build, deploy and run applications as code to manage software at scale and minimize errors. Additionally, they should specify checks and conditions to perform flexible and controlled upgrades so that upgrades can happen without impacting business operations, such as order processing or device restarts. This way, the system can pause updates during critical tasks and resume once the job is complete. With these conditions, organizations can complete updates and avoid failures.
Retailers can share updates and configurations for all devices located in a region by adopting caching proxies and peer distribution protocols. To avoid manual intervention, they can implement automatic and centralized rollback mechanisms. Cutting down on tools is also necessary: Reducing the footprint of tools used to manage deployment, monitoring, and service management will help avoid performance degradation that could result in deployment failures.
Ensure Device Security
To mitigate the risk of security breaches through your edge devices, you should configure device settings, conduct regular compliance checks and automate the resolution of misconfigurations to ensure device security and compliance. As a precaution, you can also connect only a limited number of devices to the central server.
Besides the large scale of devices you might be dealing with, their geographical distribution also increases the complexity of managing security, making it difficult to detect malicious activities. Embracing Zero Trust Principles in your retail device management can help ensure that all the devices are correctly authenticated, and access is restricted.
Reliability and Consistency with Automation and DevOps
The problem of managing software on retail edge devices is massive, and most organizations are not prepared to efficiently manage the growing edge device footprint. To effectively manage software on edge devices such as point-of-sale systems, self-checkout devices, cash registers, printers, smart cameras, and single-board computers in a retail environment, organizations will need to implement a coordinated DevSecOps approach.
However, DevSecOps adoption in non-data center locations has been slow due to the lack of tools designed specifically for industrial edge needs. A unified toolchain and process (as the one described above) that can deploy applications, manage device configurations and security, and offer the same reliability and scalability as inside the data center/cloud can reduce the learning curve, allowing teams to get started quickly, streamline the experience, and reduce the overall load on IT/Ops Teams.