Guest Column | April 30, 2013

The Cloud And The Power Of Change


By Matt Pillar, editor in chief, Integrated Solutions For Retailers

Much has been written about the barrier-to-entry power of the cloud, but what about the power of the do-over?

We talked with Darl Crick, CTO at CrossView, about cloud delivery of retail software. Yes, we covered the fundamental cost advantages, which are compelling. Perhaps more intriguing is the cloud’s ability to let you fail, try something else, and emerge virtually unscathed.

What should software buyers know about the difference between hosted and cloud delivery of applications?

Crick: When looking at buying software to run in a cloud, you need to look for a software provider that offers on-demand licensing. The advantage of the cloud is its flexibility to scale up and down as your volumes change. This flexibility allows a customer to save by no longer buying for peak volumes; it can buy for average and then scale as needed.

In the past, business users and IT would wait four to six weeks after the green lighting of a new project for hardware and infrastructure to be in place. In cloud environments, the expense and effort associated with appropriating data centers, power, pipe, and so on is no longer a barrier to the starting line.

Now, let’s say you get the project going, and you determine you don’t like it, for whatever reason. It’s not performing, customers don’t like it, or associates can’t grasp it. There’s no cost to reallocate hardware or take a loss on software licenses. There’s no cost to say, “forget it, it wasn’t successful.” You just shut it down and move on, because you only pay as you use it.

On the other hand, let’s say it’s wildly successful; it’s performing beyond your dreams. In the cloud, there’s no necessity to call in to IT and say, “go order some more server power.” You simply add horsepower to your infrastructure as you need it.

In reality, it’s unlikely a retailer will experience such severe failure or incredible success, though we certainly hope for the latter. It will experience peaks and valleys, in which the cloud enables it to bring in hardware and network capacity when it’s needed and sunset it when it’s not.

Of course, the very concept of cloud computing means there’s a certain risk, no matter how minute, involved with the availability of applications. In traditional hosting, there’s a confidence in being able to see that the software is there. With cloud-based tech, sometimes things will stop working, requiring you to bring it up quickly on another system. Redundancy becomes even more important, so cloud software providers are working on building their software stacks in a manner that makes it easier and more efficient to get them cloned and positioned for failover.

Which retail applications provide the greatest benefits of cloud computing?

Crick: Web, mobile, customer service, and POS applications become more powerful when delivered via the cloud. These applications can scale by adding additional servers or by increasing the server size. This flexibility allows for disaster recovery without the investment traditional hosting requires.

In the cloud, these applications lend themselves to cross/ omni-channel retailing. Brick-and-mortar retailers that never had a site — or e-commerce companies that never had a physical store — can get up and running in new channels quickly using cloud-based retail software. Having those applications and all that data in the cloud makes it portable, which in turn makes the business more agile.

What does the next generation of cloud computing look like?

Crick: More software products are now becoming cloud-aware and offer the ability to dynamically add and remove capacity based on system utilization. This means we can reduce IT involvement when it comes to adding/reducing capacity.

A lot of these apps are sophisticated; they require a lot of knowledge when you want to scale up. Even though cloud computing is easy, the application and licensing sides need to be cloud-aware. Amazon has Beanstalk, for instance, which allows you to build an app that has triggers that will allow Amazon to grow and shrink your resources automatically, with no IT intervention. We’ll see a lot more of that kind of activity. The application will procure the server resources itself. Consider the power of that concept around the holidays. As business blossoms, resources will be allocated without manual intervention. As it retracts, resources will back off accordingly. The cloud holds that kind of application awareness and proactivity.