It’s worth considering first why virtualization is useful at the retail edge at all. After all, for many years, retailers have been running with physical POS terminals in the front of the store and sometimes several back-office servers. As usual, there are several reasons, though not all of them will apply to all retailers in equal measure.
Extending the useful life of on-site hardware assets, such as aging POS terminals in the store, is important. This can reduce CAPEX spend purchasing replacement hardware, as well as the operational cost of replacing POS terminals and reconnecting peripherals, and the reduced environmental impact of disposing of the old hardware by reusing it. We sometimes refer to this as breaking the dependency between the POS hardware and its software. It’s often the case that older POS hardware does not have the hardware specification to run newer versions of Windows and POS software flawlessly. Or its CPU may not be supported by Windows 10, for example. However, an approach where the physical POS terminal (and its attached peripherals) becomes a diskless thin-client connecting to a VM running on a server at the back of the store, rather than running the OS and POS application stack all locally, can achieve this separation, and extend the life of the current POS terminals.
Similarly, there are an ever-increasing number of applications that retailers need to run locally or in a hybrid configuration to remain competitive and to delight their customers. There is also the need to roll out security and feature updates. The large, distributed nature of connected sites often makes this challenging to achieve centrally. However, a retail-focused virtualised approach, in conjunction with a hybrid cloud capability, can take advantage of the standardisation that often exists between different customer stores to provide most of the benefits of virtualisation at the retail edge, and allow much greater flexibility in upgrading and patching workloads, and rolling out entirely new workloads, than is otherwise possible with a non-virtualised, physical setup.
Going one step further, with thin clients and virtualization, entirely new capabilities are possible. For example, a single touch screen can be configured for a store associate to securely access two or more entirely different applications through a gesture, saving the need for additional hardware in the front of the store.
Operational issues and time to return to service (RTS) are also keen concerns for retailers, especially if they necessitate a truck roll to the site. Virtualisation supports this in several ways. The POS terminals located in the most hostile environment at the customer-facing front of the store can become diskless thin clients, so replacing failed POS hardware is a quick and simple plug-and-play hardware swap-out activity. There is no need for software imaging or reconfiguration. The managed combination of network-booting, diskless POS thin terminals, secure and seamless handling of their attached physical peripherals (scanners, pin pads, receipt printers), and a virtualized VM counterpart is a retail-specific architecture that can provide significant benefits in CFR environments.
Virtualisation also provides resilience and redundancy for store operations. Virtualisation of workloads facilitates running key store workloads (both POS and back-office workloads) in the slightly less hostile and more secure physical environment at the back of the store. Servers running the VMs can have redundant disks, and indeed if required, can even be deployed in a cluster. This means that failure of an individual hardware component, or even of an entire physical server, will not have any operational impact on the store or its ability to continue to transact. Other virtualisation capabilities such as golden images and automated VM snapshots, can also provide much quicker restoration of service in relation to file system corruption, failed updates and application-level issues.
Retailers need to focus on their operations, not supporting, securing, and maintaining on-site IT infrastructure. Adoption of virtualisation at the retail edge is something that has lagged behind virtualisation in other settings, and a successful deployment needs a different, retail-specific approach. However, it has significant benefits in CFR environments, both in terms of cost reduction, resilience of store operations and greater agility in upgrading and rolling out the new workloads key to efficient store operations and a great in-store customer experience.