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German supermarket chain Lidl is betting on hardware with the installation of new server racks across its 180 Finnish stores. The aim is to future-proof the stores’ IT infrastructure as the retail industry grows increasingly reliant on real-time data and digital services.
“Previously our stores’ connections have been slower, and there hasn’t been a need for anything other than basic functionality,” said Patrik Sundgren, head of IT infrastructure management at Lidl Finland. “Now, we are making it possible to deploy new customer-facing services and different IoT solutions.”
Lidl’s server project includes installing two rack cabinets in each of its Finnish stores. While data will primarily be processed centrally, the new racks enable Lidl stores to run more systems and applications locally using, for example, virtualisation.
In addition, Sundgren said the server racks are expected to reduce connectivity issues. The end result is store systems can function even if they fail to connect to Lild’s central systems. In practice, Lidl’s approach uses edge computing, where data is processed close to its originating source, instead of a centralised datacentre or the cloud.
The rack cabinets are provided by IT supplier Rittal and feature a few tweaks for Lidl. They come equipped with an independent cooling system which allows Lidl to grow the hardware load of the racks in the future without requiring any drastic changes.
“Also we have divided the rack so that, for example, camera surveillance can only be accessed by specific people,” Sundgren said. “We can control which people can access which parts of the racks, instead of needing to dedicate a whole cabinet, for example, to surveillance.”
Lidl started the roll-out of its racks in late 2018 and estimates it will be completed by the end of 2021. The biggest challenge so far has been the size of the racks – while they are designed as independent units, eliminating the need to place then side by side, each store still requires a custom installation and testing.
The roll-out of its rack cabinet goes hand-in-hand with the company investment in connectivity. Some of Lidl’s systems must be connected to its headquarters in Germany, so to tackle delays the company is building fibre-optic broadband to all its Finnish stores. In addition, Lidl has used subsea data cable C-Lion 1 since September 2019 to reduce latency between Finland and Germany.
“This has significantly sped up our connections compared to our data circling through Sweden or Denmark, which is the typical case,” Sundgren said.
Sundgren estimates the infrastructure improvements have halved the time store employees spend accessing some of the company’s systems.
Lidl’s upgrades in Finland are also part of a group-wide IT infrastructure renewal. Lidl is owned by Schwarz Group, the world’s sixth-largest retailer, which has made significant investments into digitalisation. Upgrades are taken on a country-by-country approach with successful projects used as templates.
“There are pilots running in Finland which are only done here, but if it looks like they can benefit the business elsewhere, then others can implement them – and vice versa,” Sundgren said.