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The rise of online retail and the Covid-19 pandemic are driving store closures, so retailers need to get smarter about how they use technology at the Edge.

The Edge is the past, present, and future of the retail industry. While the Covid-19 pandemic has shifted the model, in-store is typically where retailers make their money, store their goods, and engage with their customers.

“The retail edges are the things that drive the company’s revenue and so it’s very very important for them to make sure that they are able to drive revenue continuously, and not have any kind of downtime,” says Ezat Dayeh, senior systems engineer UK and Ireland at Cohesity.

But, as retailers look to adapt to the difficult commercial realities of Covid-19, the Edge is becoming an opportunity to consolidate old computing infrastructure to drive efficiency, but also embrace new high-data, low-latency use cases to improve customer experience.

Legacy Edge converging on new Edge

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How Edge and AI are transforming retail

Stores have long been an Edge for the retail industry. Whether it’s CCTV for security, control and monitoring of freezers, or inventory management, each store has historically required some local compute capabilities. And while robots, machine learning, and autonomous stores garner much of the headlines, modern Edge computing is also being used as a way to centralize and increase the efficiency of legacy systems without moving everything to the cloud.

Cohesity’s Dayeh says that in recent years virtualization has allowed retailers to consolidate what might have been multiple pieces of hardware into one piece of physical infrastructure. Where once the Points of Sale (PoS), network management, routers, firewalls, transaction processing might all have needed dedicated hardware, these have all been virtualized and condensed into one unit. This will often come in the shape of a tower server or a 1U server attached to communications infrastructure at the location.

“It could be running a hypervisor with multiple VMs on there, they might even have a small cluster. I’ve seen some retailers have things like hyperconverged clusters of maybe three nodes,” he says.

However, as retailers look to evolve, they may move beyond consolidation and connect those Edge locations into a centrally-managed panel to drive greater efficiencies.

“We’re seeing new applications being deployed at the Edge,” says Dave Demlow, VP of product strategy at Scale Computing. “Some of them are AI-related or customer experience related, but some of them are more of what I would consider mundane things they’ve always done, like video surveillance, but they’re now looking to kind of consolidate all this piecemeal IT infrastructure and treating remote Edge IT with a centralized management oversight.”

As the legacy Edge consolidates and retailers look to add new capabilities, the form factor for the infrastructure has to be reduced. Space is money in retail, and every inch that computing devices take up could to used to store or display stock.

“The smaller the better,” says Dayeh. “In an ideal world, they have zero footprint. Everything is run on the PoS machines themselves and they communicate directly over some form of WAN straight to a data center, for example.”

“We’ve had customers literally tell us this ‘needs to fit in between the bananas and the freezers,’” jokes Demlow.

Companies are also looking to simplify computing as much as possible, and many Edge computing firms are looking at offering compute devices that require as little configuration as possible so the on-site employees only need to plug in the power and Ethernet cables. The aim for many retailers is to reduce the on-site visits from IT staff as much as possible and enable more remote management.

A new hybrid infrastructure model for retail computing