“IT is becoming a central point of business strategy and retail is a great example of where that is playing out in real time,” states Kevin Brown, Senior Vice President of Innovation and Chief Technology Officer, Secure Power Division, Schneider Electric.
"So, we had our guys there fixing the problem before it escalated on the customer end. This is how we see the future and Schneider is in a key position to help augment what the CIO is trying to do with their existing staff"
The implication is that the role of the CIO is more business-oriented today than it has ever been. Schneider Electric has looked at the retail sector early on as a very interesting vertical where the company’s theory of “resilience at the edge” could be realized. As more and more devices are connected, both data centers and edge nodes will need to be resilient and provide the fundamental physical infrastructure that enables analytics-related, real-time decision support, according to the company’s whitepaper, “Three Key Enablers of IOT and Edge Computing Resilience.”
Schneider Electric’s view is that, very soon, enterprises will evolve into hybrid computing environments, a very relevant prospect to the retail sector.
Mission Critical Retail
With the pervasion of IT, the scope of the CIO’s role in a retail environment is broadening exponentially. Schneider Electric develops the infrastructure that supports the IT, which, in a retail environment, would encompass all of the dependencies of the core building infrastructure—unifying both retail and IT as one system.
Brown believes the future will hold three main kinds of data centers in this infrastructure and uses this simplified approach:
1. Centralized cloud centers
2. Regional edge, such as colocation or enterprise data centers, located closer to the user
3. Local edge, as in server rooms or wiring closets, near where data is consumed
A hybrid computing environment holds great potential for better performance. Any enterprise application in a contemporary retail firm is going to depend on all three types working together for a fulfilling experience. Using the Uptime Institute’s Tier Classification System, a typical Tier III data center has nearly an hour and a half of downtime per year and that is generally considered satisfactory by the industry. However, the need to have an optimized retailer on the edge demands that the three data centers interact with each other, with the performance of the IT applications being dependent on the availability of all three.
"IT is becoming a central point of business strategy and retail is a great example of where that is playing out in real time"
This demand points toward the local edge, specifically the wiring closet, which is the weakest link in the chain. If a typical server room and wiring closet were modeled as a Tier I data center, Schneider Electric’s theoretical model shows that it would experience 29 hours of downtime per year, according to Schneider Electric. When you connect that edge node to a best-in-class data center with an hour and a half of downtime per year, the model shows that the availability actually gets worse—about 31 hours.
There is a need for a cultural shift within the industry, Brown states because our focus needs to be on making sure the user of the application gets the performance they expect. Historically, the industry’s perception of failure has been a disruption to any IT equipment within a single data center. The new perception includes the importance of user interruption and loss of connectivity at localized sites.
So, while the local edge is of the highest importance for business continuity, it is also the area facing the most vulnerability.
Fortifying Retail Capabilities
The local edge has to be treated as a mission-critical data center, so the infrastructure needs to be more robust, according to Brown. Schneider Electric customers have been asking for four hours, instead of five minutes, of power backup because generators were not present on-premise.
Security is another concern. Brown points out that at colocation facilities, it is normal to have an armed guard constantly monitoring visitors, who must turn in all laptops and devices before entering. This is considered best practice and is in stark contrast to physical security at a retail store where janitors, employees, and visitors may have access to the network. So, physical security, which Brown calls the first step of cybersecurity, would demand that no one should be able to walk in and simply plug into a network. It is a non-sustainable model given current cybersecurity regulations and these risks must be managed more comprehensively— through the edge.
Schneider Electric’s management tools provide the capabilities to establish strong security and full visibility into operations on the edge.
At Schneider, they have been watching the retail space and the seismic shifts in how people shop very closely. If brick and mortar retail stores are to survive this transformation, it may be by offering one-of-a-kind experiences for customers that cannot be replicated online. They will be using more technology than ever, such as virtual dressing rooms where you can try on clothing without the hassle of getting undressed. And Brown knows that all this technology in stores means an enhanced dependence on cloud-based applications. Therefore, edge computing will continue to become even more critical to the overall data center solution. To deliver on this, Brown says the industry needs to improve in three key areas.
First, the industry must work together in ways that it hasn’t had to in the past. Brown calls this the integrated ecosystem and it’s a transformation in how the industry operates to deliver a solution to a customer. Physical infrastructure vendors must join forces with system integrators, managed service providers, and the customer on innovative systems that are integrated and deployed on-site. Schneider believes standardized and robust micro data centers that can be monitored and managed from any location are the solution. The company has partnered with HPE and is working with others on this, and recently announced expanded Cisco Certification of the entire NetShelter product line, certified to ship with Unified Computing System or UCS inside of them. Progress is clearly being made.
Second, the management tools used to manage equipment and physical infrastructure are inadequate. A single data center operator may have 3,000 sites dotting the globe with multiple alarms and no on-site staff. Management tools must move to a cloud-based architecture. This will allow thousands of geographically dispersed edge sites to have the same level of manageability provided for large data centers. With a cloud-based architecture like Schneider’s EcoStruxure IT, you can pay as you grow and start with what you need. It’s easy to scale, upgrades are automatic, and it has up-to-date cybersecurity. Most importantly, this approach enables access from anywhere, at any time, from any device.
And finally, with all this data consolidated on the cloud, Schneider is investing in data science integration. By leveraging AI and analytics, the company can become more predictive in terms of when something needs to be addressed at the customer site and solve it efficiently and with more accuracy.
Applied Computing on the Edge—Beyond Just Brick and Mortar
Schneider Electric is pulling it all together, through a combination of tools, hardware, and services, to be able to proactively fix things in a manner that matches their footprint globally.
There is often a separation between the CIO and what the rest of the facility in retail is doing, Brown says. Increased visibility into how the whole store is performing is needed and, over time, CIOs are going to have to take more responsibility for the facility onsite in the store itself.
The changing role of IT and indeed the CIO means that the future of retail on the edge is aligned with the vision of Schneider Electric’s work in the field. The company has been actively involved with customers in driving this retail revolution, extending its understanding of what lies over the horizon. Schneider Electric helped a large retail customer manage its remote edge sites with Schneider’s cloud-based EcoStruxure and the customer has reduced the number of UPS (Uninterruptible Power Supply) faults by 70 percent. With service bureaus worldwide, Schneider staff is connected and looking at the same data as the customer, at the same time, and proactively dispatches service or support teams when needed.
“So, we had our guys there fixing the problem before it escalated on the customer end. This is how we see the future and Schneider is in a key position to help augment what the CIO is trying to do with their existing staff,” concludes Brown.