Cloudy with a patch of fog – the retail response to IoT

Hubert da Costa, VP EMEA, Cradlepoint

The rapid rise of the Internet of Things (IoT) is causing a shift in many industries – no more so than the retail industry where it is fast shaping the way businesses and customers interact.

Smartphones and wearable devices are connecting customers to retailers, whilst a host of IoT devices are enhancing the retail environment. Digital signage is displaying interactive product information and live pricing, payment systems are linking to mobile platforms, smart shelves detect when inventory is low and RFID sensors track goods throughout the supply chain.

In fact, a recent study found that 70% of retail decision makers globally are ready to adopt the Internet of Things to improve customer experiences, says Hubert da Costa, VP EMEA, Cradlepoint.

However, this shift is presenting a unique challenge – how to manage these in-store IoT devices. There are two aspects to this. First, the amount of data that will be generated by IoT devices in the retail sector is growing faster than networks’ ability to process it.

The biggest immediate hurdle for retailers to overcome is how to manage, analyse and act on the reams of data pouring in from all of the connected devices. Second, nearly everyone has moved – or is moving – to the cloud. But as data volumes increase, even the cloud has the potential of becoming a bottleneck. In the race for mass IoT adoption IT managers have got their work cut out like never before.

To address this issue, many retailers are discovering the potential of ‘fog computing’, which simply means extending cloud-computing capability to the edge of the network. This adds process and memory resource to edge devices – be that switches, routers, or a Bluetooth beacon – so that data can be collected and pre-processed at the network edge before sending aggregated results to the cloud. This fog computing approach is fast, efficient and allows all of that potentially rich data to be utilised quickly, to better serve customers and improve the bottom line.

The technology in action…

Real-time retail applications are significant drivers of fog computing. Bluetooth beacons are a great example. They have become a popular tool for retailers to communicate with customers and send personalised offers to potential customers in the vicinity. But beacons are just one example of a host of IoT devices that are changing the retail environment.

Customer mapping applications will let stores extract customer insight including the most popular store areas, where people stop to look at merchandise, and how many visitors enter the store. Dynamic price tags can help increase profits and customer retention, by changing purchase behaviour and keeping buying in a store.

Fog computing enables the retail industry to leverage the data from these devices as quickly and efficiently as possible, whilst ensuring future IoT devices can operate at the same speed and efficiency as other networked devices.

Future-proofing the network

As retailers plan ahead for their future network needs, they are recognising the emerging role fog computing will play in their network architecture. In the past, with on-site technology mostly limited to computers and printers, retail stores could survive with traditional branch appliances and centralised servers, firewalls, VPN concentrators, and SNMP (Simple Network Management Protocol) management servers.

Today, with mobile devices such as phones and tablets so prevalent, retailers are moving many of their applications and management functions off physical devices and into the cloud.

Cloud today, fog tomorrow

As retail IoT adoption continues to grow, ATMs, kiosks, video cameras, HVAC controllers, temperature sensors, digital signage, and many yet-to-be-invented retail-specific technologies will likely become edge devices with fog computing capability – all expected to handle more computing than ever before.

There can be no doubt that the forces of cloud, mobile and the IoT are combining to transform the retail landscape. Today’s IT teams are faced with the challenge of providing connectivity to people, places and things anywhere, while ensuring visibility, security and control.

Fog computing has a pivotal part to play, as do advanced technologies such as SD-WAN and SD-Perimeter, which are already helping IT teams to manage their increasingly distributed networks. And with 5G set to arrive within the next three years (which has the potential to be as transformative as the introduction of electricity itself) the IoT era will be in full swing, giving them the network flexibility and scalability necessary to grow and improve at the rate their highly competitive industry requires.

The author of this blog is Hubert da Costa, VP EMEA, Cradlepoint

Comment on this article below or via Twitter: @IoTNow OR @jcIoTnow

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