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Gaining an edge in retail.

Clive Partridge, Rittal technical manager for IT Infrastructure, explains how retailers and other organisations can use edge data centres to create decentralised IT resources quickly and easily

The volume of data that needs to be processed is soaring as a result of digital transformation, to the point where companies now need a quick and easy way to establish new data centres directly where that data is generated. Modular edge data centres are the ideal solution.

Delivering computing power right where the data is generated, these decentralised IT systems help ensure exceptionally fast initial data processing, and are also linked to cloud data centres for downstream processing. This enables software applications in connected data centres to use upto-the-minute data when performing analyses that require high levels of computing power.

The extra computing power provided by an edge data centre could enable a retailer, for example, to evaluate data relating to customer behaviour quickly and precisely at point of sale. They could compare sales across branches; identify trends by analysing surveys from social media platforms; monitor customer preferences and change POS displays accordingly; or identify consenting customers by their smartphone and greet them with personalised offers as they enter a store.

The continuous availability of data gathered via edge computing can also help retailers improve logistics. They could intelligently network branch stores with regional warehouses and a central data centre and, in doing so, improve product availability at point of sale (POS) or analyse stock-tracking trends to identify patterns in sales, providing advance notice of potential bottlenecks in the supply of specific products.

Retailers are already installing networked sensors and cameras to track goods and customers. This creates an Internet of Things generating a continuous data stream that they can use to identify positions on the shelf where each product sells best or to enable the automatic re-ordering of products.

In the future, more and more retailers are expected to use edge data centres to deliver the requisite IT infrastructure at the POS, a trend that is being repeated across many other industries. Market analyst IDC estimates that in 2019 edge IT systems could be processing and analysing as much as 40% of data from the Internet of Things.

What types of edge data centres are available?

Edge systems use preconfigured, standardised modules, including climate control and power supply modules, stable IT racks and robust security components, and come in a range of output classes to meet different needs and applications, from edge gateway systems that consolidate data on site before transferral to downstream cloud data centres to systems that carry out initial evaluations close to the data source.

In retail, smaller systems can be deployed to perform the initial aggregation of sensor data in a department store, supermarket or shopping centre, while powerful edge data centres can be utilised to significantly increase the computing power at a location, which might be necessary if the retailer wants to offer their customers elaborate product presentations based on virtual and augmented reality.

The technology used in edge designs can vary greatly, from a basic service rack to a specially secured IT rack with an additional protective cover. If more power is required, a high-performance edge data centre based on a modular data centre container with weather resistant and fire-resistant covering can be installed in the immediate vicinity of the location where the data is generated, either inside or outside. With appropriate cooling technology, output of up to 35 kW per IT rack can be supported.

Thanks to their steel walls, IT containers are both stable and secure, while their mobility makes them highly flexible and enables powerful data centres to be installed anywhere on company grounds or inside warehouses.

Flexible configuration

Technical and IT experts will need to consider a number of criteria when determining the configuration of an edge data centre, starting with the customer’s business objectives and required software applications.

In an ideal scenario, the manufacturer will supply a turnkey, ready-assembled system, complete with cooling technology, for plug-and-play connection to the power supply and network technology.

To minimise running costs, operation should be automated and largely maintenance-free. This will require comprehensive monitoring, covering power supply, cooling, fire detection and extinguishing, with the protection category determined by factors such as location and how fail-safe the system needs to be. The monitoring system should also cover enclosure/rack doors, as well as side panels. Electronic door locks have the added benefit of creating a record of who had access to the IT and when.

During remote maintenance or emergencies, it may be necessary to power down the system completely. Switchable PDUs (power distribution units) are required for this purpose.

For the most stringent security, edge data centres can be installed in a room-in-room environment, which provides maximum protection in the event of fire or contaminated surroundings. If deployed outdoors, they should have a protection category that supports reliable IT operation from -20°C to +45°C.

Turnkey solutions

The modular concept adopted by suppliers such as Rittal enables customers to create the ideal solution for their needs. Rittal also works with partners such as ABB, HPE, IBM and the German cloud provider iNNOVO so that pre-defined, standardised all-in-one edge systems can be augmented with active IT components and ‘as-a-service’ options, giving customers all the services they need from a single source.

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