Cloud computing and how it can help your retail business.
There is no denying that the retail industry has had a bumpy road of late. Changing consumer attitudes, growing competition from online vendors, economic uncertainty, and a host of other issues have put pressure on already thin margins. So while controlling costs has always been a priority, there seems to be a greater sense of urgency today. The challenge for facility operations personnel is finding new ways to save money that don’t affect the shopping experience or ruffle the feathers of store managers.
Retail outlets tend to use a lot of energy, particularly on the sales floor, where lighting plays such a crucial role in attracting customers and enticing them to make a purchase. As a result, taking steps to reduce energy consumption can deliver huge savings. While energy management isn’t a new idea, it remains a largely untapped opportunity throughout the industry. Lack of capital to fund energy management projects is one reason for this. Concern about the payback on these projects is another.
Fortunately, the growth of cloud computing has opened up new approaches to energy management that help overcome these objections.
What is Cloud Computing?
Though cloud computing has been around for some time now, the technology industry hasn’t done a very good job of explaining the concept — at least not in terms that are meaningful to anyone who doesn’t work in the IT department. Researchers at Gartner, a leading analyst firm, describe it simply as “a style of computing where IT capabilities are provided as a service to multiple customers using Internet technologies.” While this may be an accurate definition, it doesn’t provide very much information.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, the National Institute of Science and Technology delivers a comprehensive overview of the topic (see www.nist.gov) that not only defines the term “cloud computing,” but also explains its essential characteristics, service models and deployment options. At nearly 750 words, NIST’s definition is anything but brief. For those who want to know everything they can, however, it’s a great place to start.
For the rest of us, the most important thing to understand is that cloud computing isn’t a specific technology. It’s a technology architecture, a way to make computing resources (e.g. software applications, server hardware, data storage, etc.) available on-demand to multiple users at the same time. This type of architecture can be deployed within a private corporate network, but today, it’s more commonly thought of as applying to external computing resources that can only be accessed via the Internet.
Cloud computing is also a business model, a way to offer computing resources as a service, rather than selling them to individual customers. Taken together, this business model, and the architecture that enables it, are changing the way organizations procure and provision the technology they need to run a business.
Cloud computing is a lot simpler, and a lot more familiar, than most people realize. Internet email accounts, like Gmail for instance, are examples of cloud computing. So are many enterprise business applications. Though, unlike Gmail, these are typically provided on a pay-per-use or subscription fee basis — a business model known as Software as a Service or SaaS.
While SaaS is probably the best known cloud computing model, it isn’t the only model. Another cloud computing solution, Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS), is also important to understand. Where SaaS, as the name implies, is a software delivery model, IaaS vendors provide computing infrastructure (processing, storage, networks, etc.), allowing customers to deploy whatever software they choose to. The ability to dynamically allocate processing horsepower and network bandwidth as needed is a key component of the IaaS model, and makes real-time data analysis feasible.
Cloud Computing & Energy Management
Cloud computing speaks directly to the challenge of achieving a consistent, accurate and up-to-date view of energy performance across a large retail portfolio. With multiple store formats, buildings that differ in age and construction, and HVAC and lighting equipment from several manufacturers, energy performance can vary widely from one store to another. To increase energy efficiency, therefore, it’s critical to understand the individual performance characteristics of every location, including how and when they use energy.
Energy usage and equipment maintenance data continue to exist in silos, disconnected from operations data. Real-time information, such as EMS trends and meter data, is either non-existent or hard to use. This makes it more difficult to track the results of energy efficiency projects. It also tends to make the performance metrics for these projects less visible within the organization. Cloud technology helps eliminate these silos by leveraging database resources and storage capacity that rarely exist within the corporate network, and providing centralized access to this data. These capabilities, in combination with cloud computing solutions like real-time commissioning, automated fault detection and diagnostics, and KPI dashboards, have the potential to transform the way the retail industry approaches energy management.
— George Huettel is vice president of Ecova, a leader in total energy and sustainability management. Ecova was formerly known as Advantage IQ; the company acquired Prenova in late 2011. Huettel may be reached at [email protected].