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What it Means To Be Software-Defined in Retail and How We Got Here

Brian Buggy: CTO & Co-founder

“Software-defined” is related to a term adopted by the tech industry that we’re all going to hear more about in the coming years: edge computing. What does it mean to be software-defined, paying particular attention to the retail edge? It’s all about what tech underpins software-defined, and what innovation and benefits software-defined can unlock. To understand the value it can create within retail technology it’s important to look back at how we got here.

The Evolution of Software-Defined

There was a time mainframes were the size of small data centers and minicomputers were the size of a closet. With no network to connect them they operated as small islands in a vast sea with poor communication. LANs and WANs started to tie everything together from the late 80s and by the mid 90s we had client server systems that grew rapidly and drove the emergence of large datacenters. Meanwhile the internet created flexible ways of communicating with these datacenters. However, they were still one-application-to-one-server configurations. The hardware configuration was in control and data centers’ pattern and application capability were set once the hardware was built. Then the first instance of software-defined came along – virtualization. The business case was simple: you can squeeze more from your server investment if the relationship between application and server can be more flexible by being implemented in software.

The cloud took virtualization to another level by scaling up and further centralizing the data center on a national, or even continental, scale. It also added a crucial component: sophisticated management. Virtualization and cloud have evolved to make all aspects of centralized computing software-defined, not just reliant on the hardware alone. We now have software-defined storage and software-defined networking so that we can create almost any complex combination of compute, storage and networking in the cloud.

Today’s developers can create arbitrary combinations of compute, storage and networking and scale them quickly. That’s why the cloud is so successful. However, the key issue here is control – configuration is controlled by the software.

Breaking Away from a Device-Centric Architecture

Device-centric architecture served the retail industry well through the 1980s and 1990s, as the then new concept of electronic POS was married to LANs for the first time. In early generations, it was convenient to deploy one application per device. Hence one computer, one operating system and one POS.

However, this arrangement comes with high overhead: it requires physical, expensive and burdensome deployment projects for most changes. Complex logistics are required to get devices, networking, power, operating systems and security software into the right configuration, in the right location, to support an application. This inflexibility derived from the hardware remaining in control.

The exciting software-defined developments in data centers and the cloud did not trouble the retail environment during the last fifteen years, so the industry continued using a device orientated architecture.

However, in today’s fast-paced environment where customer expectations of speed and new experiences are elevated, retailers need a more flexible, dynamic model that is not tied to this ‘one device, one application’, device orientated model. They can no longer wait six months to get a new computer into every store to launch a new service, or send a field engineer to every site just to make a change. Retailers must deploy at the speed of the cloud, in just a few clicks, or risk being held back.

Software Defined Edge Computing is Leading the Future

Edge computing is just one of a countless emerging technologies that are transforming retail stores. However, because it’s infrastructure, it is a critical underpinning of the technology adoption cycle for retailers.

Edge computing is primarily about transforming the way in which workloads are hosted and managed in distributed locations. There are plenty of reasons why these workloads will never end up being centralized and require a software defined edge strategy:

  • Assisting latency for time-sensitive applications
  • Reducing the reliance on network and bandwidth
  • Improving data privacy and security

Edge computing completes the cloud. It is a cloud technology that applies the same software-defined principles to everything that is not the central cloud.

In retail, edge computing provides a new paradigm for running existing applications like POS and at the same time is “oven ready” for the new world of distributed microservices. Edge computing and its associated software-defined concept gives the retailer the power to make things happen instantly across the whole business from a single point and not having to rely on armies of engineers roaming the country.

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