One of the best-known clothing retailers in the world has embraced edge computing technology and realised significant operational advantages as a consequence, one of its senior technical staff said in a presentation at the recent Edge Computing World conference.
The Gap operates more than 2500 stores in North America and handles about $10 billion in transactions per year. The company has switched from traditional point-of-sale technology to a system based almost entirely on Apple’s iOS products, as iPads replace cash registers and scanner guns across sales floors.
The operational advantage is all about flexibility, according to Shivkumar Krishnan, the Gap’s global head of engineering for stores technology. It’s easy to use the store’s iPads for everything from inventory tracking to point-of-sale to loyalty programs to labour management (employees clock in and out and manage their schedules on the devices).
The iPads being used for point-of-sale use a wired connection for transaction security, but others on the sales floor use secure Wi-Fi to connect to a private LTE router, which in turn connects to the store’s main router and edge services.
“We were running a 15-year-old tech stack that we couldn’t upgrade anymore,” said Krishnan. “It’s a much more seamless experience where you can go much faster in terms of the check-out process, and have the loyalty program integrated.”
The iOS-based sales infrastructure adds new capabilities, as well, like the ability to order a product for a consumer if it’s not physically present in the store.
That ties into the Gap’s inventory-management system, which has to track more than half a million SKUs and is clever enough to decide whether it would be quicker to have a product shipped from nearby retail store or directly from the warehouse.
The Gap also uses smart cameras, connected via the same Wi-Fi network, to track foot traffic in and out of each store. That service, like all of the others systems run in-store, runs on a dedicated edge server.
Each service is a micro-version of the parent process running up the chain in the Gap’s cloud – stores connect to the cloud via a dedicated telecom circuit – which means that a service outage somewhere between the store and the cloud won’t stop those services from operating.
“There are a lot of points of failure, any one of which could have put your store out of business,” said Krishnan. “But with edge, even if your store gets hit with an outage, you can keep working.”
The adoption process wasn’t seamless, however. The initial version of the software used to manage all the different services at the edge tended to crash often, particularly when trying to connect to a lot of different peripherals like cameras, printers, and iOS devices.
But the bigger problem was a lack of edge capability. The first iteration had all of the same services, but the core processes ran solely in the Gap’s cloud, leaving it vulnerable to the service outages. Employees wanted the old technology back.
“Initially, we wanted to get everything out there as quickly as possible, but we should’ve taken a more incremental approach,” said Krishnan.
The project took longer than expected to finalise due in part to the advent of Covid-19. It’s only recently been completed, despite expectations that it would have been done by March.
Nevertheless, Krishnan said he was pleased to have replaced 15 years’ worth of technology in a three-year project. He sees the future of the project as even more distributed than the current system – mini-data centres in stores, small and widely distributed fulfilment centres and customer storefronts, all powered by edge computing.