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Most of us grew up knowing retail and hospitality as hands-on businesses—the server handing you a menu, the ring of a cash register (not to mention cash!), perhaps even a string tied around your bakery box. But times change and needs change. And a lot of legacy businesses out there—like many shops and restaurants—still struggle with the hows, whens, and whys of the transition to digital. Enter companies like edge computing platform provider Reliant.
We talk with its CTO and Co-Founder Richard Newman about how brick and mortar is transforming into smart retail businesses with cloud- and edge-based architectures, what can be done about the supply chain problem, and the best way to transition out of legacy systems.
How is edge computing addressing the changing needs of retailers and restaurants?
Because of COVID and the pandemic, a lot of the industry has doubled down on contactless—whether that be payment, or buy online and pick up in-store, or delivery-based services and fulfillment out of physical stores or restaurants. And so a lot of older brands, ones that hadn’t invested as heavily in technology as they might have, either shrank substantially or even went out of business.
The innovative companies, the ones that were already pushing the envelope with things like autonomous shopping, self-checkout, tight integrations and delivery, advanced omnichannel-based order management—they’re the ones that did the best coming through COVID.
But brick and mortar isn’t going away by any stretch. It’s really becoming much more of a hybrid model. That has forced changes in the systems deployed in that environment, changes that require modernization and re-architecting of those actual physical systems. Take quick-serve restaurant operators. Suddenly they’re seeing a much larger percentage of orders being processed outside of their restaurants, and their current systems and the way their kitchens are configured can’t necessarily keep up unless they are investing in next-generation technologies.
How can businesses go about rethinking their systems to effect these changes?
It’s an incremental approach, but edge computing provides some great ways to do it. The virtualization of existing legacy systems can be combined. Virtual machines can run at the same time and workloads can go from a monolithic architecture and be delivered as lightweight containers. Then all of that can be connected much more closely to cloud-based systems and services. That’s how to make a start. It could be one simple application at a time, but along the way they’ll be able to develop a much more agile architecture.
And changing up the architecture, going from legacy to an edge-based approach, provides an opportunity. If you think about the way things used to be back when we were talking about data centers, it wasn’t so easy. You had to actually order a server from somebody, wait for that server to arrive, rack it, connect it to the network, provision it, and load software on it. Whereas if you’re running a cloud-based infrastructure, people think nothing of adding another virtual machine or virtual host or another set of container-based workloads in the cloud. But many operators, when they need a new system deployed in their physical store or physical restaurant, are still stuck in the older mindset.
Edge changes that. In an edge-based workload, they’ll have a foundational system—like Reliant’s platform—that will sit at their physical store or physical restaurant. And if they want to add another virtual machine, they provision it and it pops up. If they want to add another set of containers connected into a docker container registry—a set of applications they may have—all those actions are done through the cloud, and they’re up and running in the store or restaurant. It’s really that easy, and that’s the big change.
Tell me about the importance of Intel® to achieving these scenarios you’re describing.
Customers want to be able to have something that’s very leverageable, but that’s also going to be highly reliable. Suddenly they’re going to be concentrating more workloads running on what might be a cluster, and they’re going to want to have scalable capacity. That moves them off of what might be consumer-grade components and hardware to something that’s more data-center grade.
That’s where Intel® has been doing a lot of tremendous work, and the silicon it produces and the architectures that it’s supporting lead the industry in that space. And it’s coming out with new stuff all the time, which is just fantastic for these types of applications.
Are you seeing any hesitation in your customers to transform?
What often happens in the physical world in retail and hospitality is that everyone goes through various levels of hardware upgrade cycles, or network upgrade cycles, or major application shifts. So it’s at those moments of transition that they can take advantage of moving to an edge architecture instead of doing the same old thing. Take advantage of the changes they have to do, to make the changes they need to do.
“Many operators, when they need a new system deployed in their physical #store or physical #restaurant, are still stuck in the older mindset. #Edge changes that.” –Richard Newman, CTO and Co-Founder @reliantio, via @insightdottech
In most cases, when they dig in, there’s real ROI associated with moving architectures. They end up with less physical gear overall, which means there’s less to break and less cost associated with break fix. Higher reliability, better uptime. It’s easier to support and service the edge-based products, too.
How does it all work in terms of the technical complexity?
Edge-based systems should look and act like cloud-based systems, relative to how they are managed and operated. Businesses should be using easy-to-use GUI tools for configuration. They should have configuration on a highly automated basis. They should be able to use an API to manage configuration orchestration. And that mirrors cloud.
Anyone who’s been through a cloud-migration project knows what’s involved with doing it. They understand that there are new technical skill sets that come up along the way. At some point organizations have to look at what they’re doing in their physical premises, and they’re going to say, “What are things going to look like going forward? How are we going to evolve to accommodate that?” That’s where companies like Reliant come in. We’re rolling up our sleeves and helping our customers achieve success.
Where do you see edge technology being critical to this evolution?
When we look forward, we’re going to see a world where there are many more opportunities to use AI and ML to support facilitated retail, facilitated restaurant operations, etc. Let’s just pick the most obvious and easy one—walk-in-walk-out frictionless checkout. We’ve grown up in a world where we’re used to waiting on checkout lines, and having our products scanned and weighed, our shopping carts emptied out, our products handled—all by a cashier.
Machine learning and machine vision and related technologies like LiDAR and shelf sensors, and the ability to wrap all of that around in a web-to-edge-based architecture, eliminates the need for all that. The benefits are numerous, and they result in happier customers. They result in employees who are able to do jobs that involve more than just weighing a bag of brussels sprouts.
Another example—every restaurant has food prep going on. But if someone says they’re allergic to dairy yet sour cream ends up on their burrito, that’s an expensive mistake and it’s an unpleasant customer experience. But it’s really not much of a job for a camera to alert someone that there’s a problem. And it’s not just order quality, but food safety. How long has something been sitting out? What’s the temperature of a refrigerator or a cooking service? A computer can catch mistakes, or help people make smarter decisions.
Are these technologies providing some new benefits to the supply chain?
Certainly. Edge computing can provide options for getting much smarter about what physical inventory or food products are being maintained in a store or restaurant. It’s better than having a manager run around with a clipboard trying to figure out what’s going on. And the data can be real time. So it provides opportunities for more dynamic pricing. It provides opportunities to potentially tell a customer, “We don’t have this product at this store, but we have it at this other store and we’ll find a way to get you what you need.”
Of course there are challenges with supply chain that can go halfway around the world to where products are manufactured. And the technologies we’re talking about here can provide visibility into: Where is something in the manufacturing process? Where is something in shipping? How long has it been at the dock? When am I going to get it in my store? And how can I use all this data to optimize my ability to give the customer the product or service they want at the best possible price?
How is Reliant helping customers make the transition?
We’re focused on making it as easy as possible for our customers to take their existing legacy applications and run them as virtual machines. Or to define new, container-based workloads that they want to run, and plug it all together.
That puts us in a great position. Customers count on us to be smart and knowledgeable about the retail or the restaurant application stack. So we’re very conversant in payment, point of sale, signage, kitchen automation, order management, RFID—all these components that drive the modern store or the modern restaurant. We bring that business knowledge together with the customer’s requirements on edge computing on a platform that’s as open and as agnostic as possible.
Management of systems at scale becomes both an opportunity and potentially a challenge. All of these systems that are running in cloud and edge with a high degree of integrity have got to be managed. So an important part of what we try to do is to really make configuration highly automated, but also highly visible.
Another focus we have is making sure that, when customers are thinking about their workloads, they end up in situations where those workloads can run even if cloud connectivity is compromised, not available at all, or just degraded. And that’s very important, because the business needs to happen no matter what. It can’t be, “Sorry, we’re not going to be able to make your burger today because we’ve lost cloud connectivity. Our stove works, but we just don’t know how to cook a burger without the cloud-based system telling us what to do.” Resiliency is super important. It’s part of what you do with edge-based computing.
We’re really very excited about the pace of change right now. This couldn’t be a better time. Obviously COVID has driven a lot of work to us as organizations have scrambled to adapt. But coming out of COVID we’re seeing another phenomenon, which is everyone suddenly saying, “All these projects I had—for whatever reason they’ve been on hold. Now I’ve got to get going with them.” So we’re busy. It’s delightful. And I just want to keep it going.
To learn more about edge and cloud retail experiences, read Edge + Cloud = Advanced Retail Operations and listen to the podcast Smart Retail Needs Edge Computing with Reliant. For the latest innovations from Reliant, follow them on Twitter at @reliantio and on LinkedIn at Reliantdotio.
This article was edited by Erin Noble, copy editor.