The edge was a hot topic at the recent VMware Explore user event as it promises to create new experiences by processing data closer to the user. This removes much of the latency when moving data to and from the cloud. While there has been significant interest in the edge, adoption has been slow as organizations educate themselves on the use cases. At Explore, VMware hosted a dedicated session on retail edge, which uses edge computing to transform retail.
The retail industry has seen notable changes in recent years, specifically with the COVID-19 pandemic accelerating the shift towards digital transformation. Edge computing is among the technologies making a significant impact in the evolution of the retail vertical. By positioning data closer to where it originates rather than in a distant data center, edge computing offers retailers a faster way to harness and analyze data.
Improved operational efficiency through better data gathering is one of the biggest advantages of edge computing in retail. Models like “click and collect” (buy online and pick up in-store) simplify the consumer buying process and provide retailers with timely insights. As retail chains grow, they often face challenges linked to the variability in their operations and the lifecycles of their hardware and software. Edge computing can address these challenges by helping retailers automate inventory, enhance loss prevention measures, and create data-informed marketing strategies.
A full-stack approach to retail edge
VMware’s Edge Compute Stack is designed for retailers—and other organizations—that want to leverage edge computing. This comprehensive solution reduces the need for multiple hardware setups. It supports not just virtual machines (VMs) but also containerized applications. VMware’s platform approach allows retailers to transition within the same infrastructure as their requirements change. Moreover, an extensive network of partners supports the Edge Compute Stack, so retailers aren’t stuck with just one option.
“Our platform approach is flexible, and it scales up. So, you could be doing VMs, and then if you want to containerize or roll out a Kubernetes application, the same stack can support all your needs,” said Abhilasha Choudhri, product manager at VMware, during the session.
The Edge Cloud Orchestrator is central to the Edge Compute Stack, announced at Explore 2023. Edge Cloud Orchestrator allows organizations to set up, oversee, and secure applications and infrastructure designed for edge computing. It provides consistent hardware management through a unified interface, simplifying operations for retailers, explained Eric Cheung-Young-Sen, solutions architect at VMware, who also participated in the session.
Flexibility is a defining feature of the Edge Compute Stack. It can handle edge clusters that range from a single server to multiple servers. This provides the foundational layer atop which additional services can be incorporated, such as secure access service edge (SASE), private 5G, and artificial intelligence (AI)/machine learning (ML), enabling retailers to modernize and digitize their stores. Software-defined wide area network (SD-WAN) services can also be added for secure connectivity.
“If something happens along the way, you can quickly roll back the software; you can leverage the same tools you have in the data center and apply that at the edge. But the learning curve for the IT team in managing all this is not as steep,” said Eric Cheung-Young-Sen.
Embracing retail edge for POS modernization
One practical use case of the Edge Compute Stack is in retail point of sale (POS) systems. Traditional POS consists of individual devices, each with its own operating system and apps. Managing these can be cumbersome and complex when scaled across numerous retail locations. VMware’s solution decouples the hardware and software, allowing retailers to manage the endpoints from a central location. This method has the dual benefit of extending the lifespan of in-store hardware and reducing potential downtime during upgrades.
When implementing the Edge Compute Stack in a retail setting, a typical setup might have a Windows OS running on edge servers, with a thin client running on a POS terminal. POS terminals can communicate directly with the Edge Compute Stack through integrations with various partners. For example, VMware partnered with Dell, which has XR4000 edge servers that are “purpose-built to address the modern demands of retailers,” said Cheung-Young-Sen.
In summary, VMware has a long history of working with retailers over the past 25 years, assisting them in updating their infrastructure for digital transformation. By expanding to edge computing, the vendor now offers retailers a way to optimize their operations and adapt to changes in a post-pandemic world. Looking ahead, I would expect VMware to continue to roll out industry-specific use cases and customer examples to help other verticals best understand how to leverage edge. I would expect to see similar sessions in transportation, healthcare, and warehousing at future events.
Zeus Kerravala is the founder and principal analyst with ZK Research.
Read his other Network Computing articles here.