“When you think of a retailer that has 2,000 locations across the country, it’s incredibly expensive to deploy local data processing and analytics for each location, so edge computing can be a huge boon,” says Paul Saville, Senior Vice President, Head of Product and Services Management, Inc. Technology Lumen, who noted that edge computing is designed to work alongside the cloud. “Level nodes combine the hardware-driven computational power with the capabilities of software-defined networking to connect them to the public cloud,” he explains. “From a single central node in a single market area, say, the size of Denver, edge computing can serve multiple retail locations within five milliseconds.”
Opportunities outweigh challenges
Shivkumar Krishnan, Head of Stores Engineering at Gap, says the biggest challenge to making edge computing a reality in retail is legacy infrastructure. “As a cloud end user, it is very easy to upgrade, as you can simply press a button and turn off a virtual machine or replace it. In retail, it is more of a logistical issue,” he explains. When set up for the first time, each site needs to connect their devices to the edge, which may need to be done at night, when customers are not in the store. And with vendors operating on site, store security staff as well as the manager should be on hand. “Finding out each individual’s availability becomes more difficult logistically,” Krishnan says. “And the process must be repeated for each of our 2,500 stores.” In the cloud, hundreds of servers can be deployed with a single click of a button.
Data security is also an inevitable challenge when it comes to the Internet of Things and other digital devices. “The more you focus on the information in a site, the more you worry about protecting it, and the more risky it is in terms of creating a single hackable spot, information theft,” Saville says. But edge computing backed by nodes in nearby data centers and connectivity to the public cloud is generally more secure and reliable than a retailer can do on its own. This is because edge computing providers, like public cloud providers, provide cybersecurity from a central location, at scale, so that they have a view of what the threats are and how they affect their customers, Savile says.
However, the advantages and opportunities of the edge far outweigh the potential challenges. “One of our biggest use cases for edge computing is the point of sale, where we process millions of transactions,” Krishnan explains. From the store to the cloud, there are many points of failure — switches, routers, communications circuits, and cloud service providers. “The edge gives us a high level of redundancy to process all transactions in the same store and back to the cloud if the edge fails,” he says.
“The edge gives us full redundancy to process all transactions in the same store and back to the cloud if the edge fails.”
Shivkumar Krishnan, Head of Warehousing Engineering, GAP
Gap has invested in high-end servers over the past few years, Krishnan says, as part of an end-to-end platform that uses the latest technologies such as microservices, cloud computing, streaming services, and the DevOps approach to engineering. “Now, with our platform, we can build, validate, and publish apps with quick turnarounds — all in the same day,” he says. “I can monitor and manage the majority of over 100,000 devices remotely. Our sales people use iPads which give us the ability to build authentic mobile user experiences that are intuitive.”
While Gap was early on in the cutting edge computing game, the challenge is keeping up with the latest and most advanced technologies, as with any technology adoption. Existing edge servers have integrated GPUs, network routers, and 5G broadband technology, “all bundled into compact hardware built from the ground up for advanced machine learning,” he says. “We hope to catch up on the next iteration of these developments and overtake others who have now.”