Like patriots of the past, retailers have been on the front lines of the digital transformation revolution. Armed with advanced cloud-based applications and state-of-the-art cloud platforms, retailers have blazed a trail in digitizing processes and workflows to ensure a good consumer experience while simplifying management of the technology environment. While digital transformation means different things depending on your role in the IT ecosystem, there is one key element that can make or break a retailer’s efforts to revolutionize the customer experience: the network. Much like a complex system of ships, trucks, and planes that deliver artillery to the troops, the network is an often overlooked but critical component of a successful digital transformation operation.
Ensuring that the network can reliably and efficiently deliver data traffic to and from the cloud can make a noticeable difference in application performance, worker experience, and the ability to operate. But too often the network is something that becomes an afterthought. Instead, it should be an integral component of the overall transformation effort.
Most define digital transformation as taking an application or task and applying technology to it to make it easier to use or create better efficiencies, accuracy, or workflows. For network as a service (NaaS) providers serving the retail industry, digital transformation is when an enterprise migrates data and applications to the cloud. The goal is to create a modernized public cloud environment. Enabling this environment is not just the network itself, but an accompanying set of technologies and managed services that ensure predictable, intelligent, secure flow of traffic to support business applications. Establishing these NaaS elements that enable what the industry calls the initial “lift and shift” and then adjusting it to fit the longer-term needs of the retailer requires experience, expertise, and key partnerships.
Today, retailers are seeing a tremendous amount of benefit in shifting applications and data to the cloud. But how do they deliver the promise of digital transformation while providing an experience that simplifies retail workers’ jobs and keeps consumers coming back?
As we examine innovative approaches to digital transformation, it is important to understand the challenges all retail organizations face. We’ve broken down the role the network plays to six key areas:
- Lack of Technology and Dedicated IT Skills – A dedicated, highly skilled IT team is essential to the success of any digital transformation project. But building such a team is increasingly difficult and costly, especially in the area of networking. That is why more retail organizations are looking for partners or managed services with experience in retail networking to help.
- Data Security – In the data center world, locations were traditionally connected with private networks. This meant that the network made no “contact” with the public internet and the concerns around security were minimal. As organizations move to internet-based solutions, IT leaders must be much more in tune with their organization’s ability to prevent, detect and mitigate security risks of all kinds as “data in flight” traverses public networks.
- Application Performance – Quite often when data center applications are moved to the cloud, they have to be re-written or optimized for that new environment. But this fights only half the battle. While a modern cloud platform can generate enormous amounts of computing power, a well-designed network will ensure that traffic flows freely to and from the cloud environment. If either of those elements lags, the worker experience suffers. The same is true for the consumer experience, potentially impacting the retail brand.
- Uptime and Resiliency of the Cloud Environment – Because of the distributed nature of public cloud environments, if one data center goes down that doesn’t mean the retail operation goes down. All public cloud environments are architected with multiple redundancies and failovers that prevent against costly downtime. The uptime and resiliency of the cloud environment is unmatched and is a key benefit of leveraging the cloud. Unfortunately, if the network isn’t built with similar contingencies in mind, a simple internet outage could have a devastating impact on a retail business.
- Management and Support – Managing applications and data sitting in one’s data center requires constant supervision. Server maintenance, software upgrades, and security concerns are just a few of the issues that keep IT staff up at night. While the networks traditionally used to access data centers are reliable and secure, they are notoriously costly and inflexible. Modern cloud-based environments not only alleviate the majority of the management concerns, but they can mostly employ more cost-effective, flexible connectivity solutions like cable and dedicated internet services.
- Budget Concerns and Constraints – A digital transformation effort that leverages a public cloud environment can be attractive to retail CFOs because of efficiency and productivity gains as well as potential cost savings. At the same time, they can also be concerned about the financial implications of such a large undertaking. After all, digital implementations are always susceptible to “scope creep,” which strains budgets. Moving from purchased servers and databases to rented space in a public cloud reduces the capital expense and shifts spending to an operating expense model. This makes budgeting more predictable and manageable.
From our point of view, there are three key things to think about when factoring the network into digital transformation:
- Understanding the Network Drives the Worker’s, and the Customer’s Experience –As you plan a move to the cloud, focusing solely on the cloud environment and how your applications perform within it is a mistake. A poorly designed network will create traffic bottlenecks, negatively affecting the experience of your users and your shoppers. On the other hand, a well-designed network ensures reliable, predictable application performance and a better experience for everyone.
- Expertise – It is exceedingly difficult to expect an IT department to have the breadth of expertise and knowledge to integrate all of these disparate network elements. Understanding the infrastructure, security, network management, and private connectivity to the cloud is where a trusted NaaS provider can provide the right kind of help to optimize network services for digital transformation.
- Holistic Support – Few IT organizations have the network support that a holistic support model can provide for network infrastructure, security, and traffic management. A top-notch NaaS provider should be able to deliver a universal or holistic perspective to each retail environment.
As consumers expect technology to play a key role in simplifying and enhancing the shopping experience, retail IT departments need to widen their lens to include the network in any digital transformation undertaking. Pairing the resiliency, agility, and reliability of a cloud-based technology platform with an intelligently designed, custom network solution will provide a strong foundation as retailers everywhere look to disrupt, modernize,and stand out in an unfathomably competitive environment.
The authors of this article are Todd Miller, Vice President of Technology Solutions at Nitel, and Mark Dickey,Chief Revenue Officer at Nitel.