How edge cloud is transforming online retail

Retail, like almost every other industry, experienced an acceleration in digital transformation brought about by the pandemic and the overnight shift to digital-first. For a time, e-commerce was the only viable shop window and retailers across the globe were presented with the opportunity to prioritise a safe, secure, and scalable online presence to better cater to, and drive revenue from, their suddenly remote customer base.

Fast forward some years and e-commerce shops have come to favour flexibility and creativity, both of which they need in order to serve more and more customers from the edge of the network. In doing so, they’re able to reduce costs, improve performance, and transform user experiences all whilst keeping their applications secure under the new demands of their suddenly remote customer base.

Edge computing is key to catering to this sudden shift and enabling great shopping experiences quickly, safely and more effectively compared to legacy CDN and security offerings. An edge cloud platform sits between e-commerce infrastructure, either in the cloud or data centres, and edge devices in order to process, serve, and secure customers’ applications as close to end users as possible — at the edge of the internet. 

Ultimately, it allows online retailers to create a better, faster and more personalised online shopping experience for customers – improving conversion rates and generating greater revenues. Here’s how.

Work bigger and faster

The entire edge cloud evolved out of the CDN and, by providing some core features during this evolution, has now created a suitable home for powerful edge computing features. It’s evolved as a function without the need for a physical kit, allowing industries worldwide to get closer to their global users than ever before and enabling far greater user experiences than were previously possible.

CDNs have always provided a better scalability model for applications due to the sheer size of their networks, which allows them to take a lot of the burden from existing business applications. With edge computing, however, businesses have been able to go one step further and deliver more content to the edge. Whereas they previously delivered simple, static content like images, CSS and Javascript, edge computing has allowed more complex parts of the application to sit at the edge of the network. 

Today, existing CDN features like real-time purge allow edge clouds to let more complex and dynamic content to be served from the edge, enabling for more, altogether better, content. Edge computing takes things even further, as beside the content of the application,  retailers can now have some of the application logic at the edge. And after all, the more at the edge, the better.

This is a huge step for online retailers who, over the past decade, have had to split their applications into microservices, distributing their content across a cloud infrastructure from a range of third-party providers. Today, all of those building blocks can run at the edge of the network. This means reduced latency, which in turn means better performance and more sales as more of the application sits increasingly closer to the customer.

The past three years have proven that the retail industry is competing in an ever changing and unpredictable landscape, and must remain nimble and ready to switch gears at a moment’s notice to remain competitive and keep up with consumer demands. With legacy CDNs, it may take time to engage with professional services and more time yet to get into their release queue, which doesn’t allow for that nimble mindset. While it’s more efficient for devs to do this themselves, they historically haven’t had the tools to do so. In the edge cloud, devs get the efficiency and automation they need, allowing them to spend less time managing the day-to-day tasks and more time focusing on the innovation that will differentiate your retail business.

A new way to build security infrastructure

When it comes to security, retailers have traditionally wanted to have experts and their products protect their online presence while they focus on infrastructure. Security has always sat at the perimeter of the network; antivirus evolved to firewalls, firewalls evolved to cloud firewalls and so on. 

As such, it makes sense today to deploy security at the edge. If a business chooses to do so for its own application, it can use the aforementioned building blocks to build a security setup, combined with available products, that are bespoke for its needs. After all, given the right tools, the retailers themselves are always going to come up with smarter, more innovative solutions than any provider could offer. Their application is unique, their challenges are unique, and they need a unique solution to help them overcome those challenges. 

Encouraging that building and experimentation is one of Fastly’s founding principles. We like to give our customers the building blocks to create whatever they want for their application in a way that suits their needs. Whether they want to build a homegrown security solution, incorporate a vendor’s service or build with Fastly products, we want them to be in creative control. 

Stay agile to keep costs down 

When it comes to cost savings, it depends on the stage and scale of your e-commerce business. For example, CDNs are still a must for large global operations, but other options are open to smaller, local setups. For the latter, when considering how to build your application and what kind of infrastructure you’ll rely on, there’s more freedom to stay agile, and to avoid giant infrastructure investments.

By offloading content to the edge, you can save on pricey bandwidth and storage costs, reduce the burden on your servers, and cut the costs you pay for moving data out of the central cloud–something that simply isn’t achievable with legacy CDNs, despite them being at the edge, due to their low cache hit ratio and the added latency and costs that this incurs. These problems cease to exist with edge computing, which promises to cache more than ever before due to the ability to instantly purge content, which in turn eliminates any worries over serving stale content. Simply put, the more you house at the edge, the more you’re able to cut typically problematic infrastructure and bandwidth costs.

Because converting e-commerce shoppers ultimately comes down to offering them a fast and 

reliable online experience every time they engage with your site or app. Beyond allowing retailers to cost-effectively offload content, edge computing also helps them deliver that reliable customer experience by radically simplifying image delivery as image transformation is handled at the edge. Image delivery is particularly important for virtual shop windows, and creating the best online shopping experience for consumers lies in serving images optimised for their specific device, connection and location, among other variables. Doing that at scale will become very costly very quickly, but doing it through an edge cloud allows them to deliver a premium service whilst saving money; prior to this, retailers were forced to store, process and multiple versions of each image, or perform offline image preprocessing, which, as well as being terribly inefficient, was significantly more expensive to host. 

Go edge or go home

As consumers continue to rely on digital channels there has never been a better time for online retailers to speed up their digital transformation and meet their customers’ needs head-on. 

Those who do will see steady margins, while those who fail to adapt will suffer the consequences. To do so, edge cloud should be a pivotal piece of the development puzzle for e-commerce businesses and not something that’s subscribed to. 

By enabling developers to do what they do best, retailers can grow and adapt their applications in conjunction with their customers’ needs, addressing unique business challenges with unique functionality. 

More importantly, this kind of developer enablement will undoubtedly lead to a bespoke and altogether better user experience that will help online sales soar.

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Ed Gray is UKCE Senior Sales Director for Commerce at Fastly, the global edge cloud platform, where he is responsible for helping enterprise retailers provide highly performant and secure experiences for their customers to ensure they remain relevant, competitive, and to ultimately drive revenue growth.

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