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GUEST COMMENT More haste, less speed in the technology furnace

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The retail industry is often seen as a crucible for new technology. No surprise: run on paper-thin margins, high overheads and with constant, cut-throat competition from multiple channels, a poor or even mistimed IT decision can have far reaching consequences. The wrong POS devices, poor security regimes or even a bit of equipment in the back end that doesn’t deliver the performance the sales guys promised; any of these can spell disaster.

The flip side of this, of course, is that even marginal gains in efficiency or speed can have a massive impact on your company’s bottom line. The crucible doesn’t just melt everything down to its constituent molecules: it creates alloys of unparalleled strength and value.

Sunhats and furnaces

A case in point: getting rapid business insight can make the difference between a missed opportunity and a huge gain. If you’re a food or fashion retailer, it can make the difference between having enough sunhats and ice cream in stock to meet demand during a heatwave, or missing the boat. Spotting sudden surges of interest in a product – or even anticipating which are going to be the hot tickets and planning ahead – can equal incremental success.

Let’s make this example a little more practical. Every retailer processes till receipts, and the time taken to batch process, combined with the length of one’s supply chain, is often the response time of that retailer to the sorts of opportunities described above. So, what if making these inquiries, to all intents and purposes some of the most basic of business intelligence queries, was a matter of minutes rather than hours? What if that ‘what if?’ question could be asked without disrupting the vital regular batch processes for establishing one’s stock position at the end of an hour, week or day of trade?

Leading craft beer maker Sierra Nevada had this exact challenge. Its conventional spinning disk storage wasn’t up to the requirements of a company that needed fast access to its information. The company needed a technology that could manage the data, which ultimately controls its manufacturing process, in a simple and efficient manner – and so it turned to flash. Flash storage arrays have helped Sierra Nevada streamline its manufacturing process by providing it with rapid insights to data, addressing any issues in production line there and then, rather than tomorrow.

The same old BI

This may sound familiar, and that’s because it’s been a common refrain for many years. The reality, however, has been constrained performance resources (to get technical – a limited number if IOPS to go round, and the need to dedicate this precious resource to the most important applications first) and a cost and complexity hurdle which presents a barrier to entry for many mid-size retailers.

We think this is about to change – if it isn’t already changing. Cloud-based services and resources, such as SAP HANA and Amazon EC2 make it possible to avoid significant capital expense, and the reliability and simplicity of a good all-flash storage array can tick all of the cost, complexity and reliability boxes while delivering IOPS.

Target as a target

One of the biggest problems for the retail sector is that it makes a very, very attractive target for attack by all kinds of organisations. Take US retail giant Target for example. Back in 2013 a full-scale breach set it back millions of pounds, as hackers stole sensitive financial data from its customer database and sold it onto the black market. Yes, of course this goes back to the cybersecurity field, but smart organisations have learned that automatically securing the most basic component of any system, the storage medium itself, is the best protection to keep vital data from slipping into the wrong hands. With flash however, this worry can be deprioritised, as nothing written to a FlashArray is unencrypted, thereby reducing the possible attack surface a hacker could exploit. It’s just one of the benefits that flash adds to its overall package to make businesses work better, faster and ultimately safer for customers.

Real life

It’s worth looking at a few real world cases where flash has made possible the sort of incremental gains that mean everything to a retail business model built on moving high volumes of the right products. Picard, a retailer of frozen food with 920 stores, which made its in-house SAP forecasting apps sing by using all-flash to get rapid insight into its supply chain. Or Kiabi, another French retailer, this time of fashion. The team there cut its database batch processing from 24 hours to four, allowing for its Informatica database to work at a speed faster than ever before.

This said, having faster access gives retailers the ability to leverage their ERP systems and bring products back to market faster as they sell out in store. But the benefits don’t stop there, by giving retailers rapid insights and access to their data, flash also allows for faster business development. When upgrading to a new system or website, it could take retailers take days to make copies of their databases, but with flash this process is almost instantaneous.

The lesson from both of these examples is this: speed to insight and accurate business intelligence can take a successful company and make it better. Doing this in a way that simplifies the process behind the insight, too, can generate operational savings. Retail is always going to be a technology crucible, a test every tech vendor must pass simply in order to survive. Getting it right is not about being the fastest or the biggest or the most outspoken – although all of those have helped in the past – it’s also about understanding the problem, rather than just throwing money at it. More haste, less speed.

Alex McMullan is Field CTO at Pure Storage

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