Cloud-based IT may be a good replacement for in-house computing in retail stores, but not without some level-headed thinking and careful planning.
For years, retailers have deployed standalone servers in far-flung stores to both complement and back up centralized IT. If the central datacenter gets overtaxed or runs into a problem, the thinking goes, remote stores can continue to function off their local servers. Transactions can be handled locally and sent later to HQ -- a technique known as "store and forward." Banks often have similar setups.
Naturally, there are IT costs locked up in this strategy, starting with paying for all that local hardware and software. There are technical support and maintenance costs, as well.
It's no wonder that many retailers are starting to look at cloud-based solutions as a way to cut costs and improve the uptime and quality of their IT services. But there are catches there, too. What if the cloud service happens to fail? Do the cloud supplier's SLAs go far enough to keep stores online through thick and thin? With local processing no longer in place, stores will be wholly dependent on a remote service. Should it fail, so likely will customer satisfaction and loyalty.
What do you do if you're charged with setting up or maintaining the health of a distributed network for retail outlets? Here's my advice:
• Avoid single points of failure in IT infrastructure that support retail operations, no matter if that infrastructure is up in the cloud and or located on-premises.
• Work closely with business managers and those in remote retail outlets to understand the levels of service that the organization is promising to its customers. Is IT ready to back up those promises?
• Get dial-in and mobile support strategies in place to service remote stores without having to physically visit them. Make sure there's a trouble-ticket system capable of documenting problems and keeping the support team and end users connected so that when problems occur, everyone can be kept informed of what's going on.
• Never engage a vendor to provide localized tech support or even a cloud solution without a firm set of SLAs in hand that detail the supplier's commitments for uptime and service.
• Remember that when all is said and done, it's the end business that matters most, not IT, per se. Sometimes the latest and greatest technology will not be the best choice. Physical servers running out in the field may still be a better choice than the spiffiest and most promising new cloud service.
Who knows, perhaps all computing will eventually make it up into the cloud. But for now, there are important choices to make. Your thoughts?