Monday Apr 02, 2012

Engineered Systems for Retail Webinar

Please join Oracle experts on April 17th for a webcast discussing the benefits of Engineered Systems for retail operations.  You'll hear about Engineered Systems delivering faster queries, data compression, and reduced batch run-times for retailers around the world.

Click here for the details.

Monday Jan 09, 2012

Engineered Systems for Retail

I've been speaking to analysts in preparation for attending the NRF Big Show next week, and one comment I heard concerned me.  The analyst said there's a misconception amongst some retailers that Oracle's software only runs on Oracle hardware.  Clearly that's a misconception, but I understand how people may have jumped to that conclusion.

Just to review, Oracle has announced three important engineered systems.  Exadata is the database machine, Exalogic is the middleware machine, and Exalytics is the BI machine.  Each system includes the hardware and system software built to work together for that specialized task.  Typical engineered systems provide about a 3X performance boost on average, with some tasks significantly faster.

Oracle's engineered systems are hardware and software built to work together.  The "software" part of the equation includes things like the operating system, database, and middleware but not the business applications.  One of the key benefits of this approach is that applications require no changes, so they will run on anyone's hardware as well as Oracle's engineered systems.

And specifically for retail, we continue to partner with different hardware vendors to test and certify our applications.  None of our retail products require Oracle hardware.  Buying hardware from Oracle is optional, and that's the plan for the future as well.

That said, there are lots of benefits from running Oracle Retail applications on Exadata, Exalogic, and Exalytics that retailers should consider.  Blazing performance, hardware consolidation, reduced energy consumption, and easy expansion are a few.

Tuesday Nov 22, 2011

Reviewing Retail Predictions for 2011

I've been busy thinking about what 2012 and beyond will look like for retail, and I have some interesting predictions to share.  But before I go there, let’s first review this year’s predictions before making new ones for 2012.

1. Alternate Payments
We've seen several alternate payment schemes emerge over the last two years, and 2011 may be the year one of them takes hold. Any competition that can drive down fees will be good for everyone. I'm betting that Apple will add NFC chips to their next version of the iPhone, then enable payments in stores using iTunes accounts on the backend. Paypal will continue to make inroads, and Isis will announce a pilot.

The iPhone 4S did not contain an NFC chip, so we’ll have to continuing waiting for the iPhone 5. PayPal announced its moving into in-store payments, and Google launched its wallet in selected cities.  Overall I think the payment scene is heating up and that trend will continue.

2. Engineered Systems
The industry is moving toward purpose-built appliances that are optimized across the entire stack. Oracle calls these "engineered systems" and the first two examples are Exadata and Exalogic, but there are other examples from other vendors. These are particularly important to the retail industry because of the volume of data that must be processed. There should be continued adoption in 2011.

Oracle reports that Exadata is its fasting growing product, and at the recent OpenWorld it announced the SuperCluster and Exalytics products, both continuing the engineered systems trend. SAP’s HANA continues to receive attention, and IBM also seems to be moving in this direction.

3. Social Analytics
There are lots of tools that provide insight into how a brand is perceived across popular internet sites, but as far as I know, these tools are not industry specific. The next step needs to mine the data and determine how it should influence retail operations. The data needs to help retailers determine how they create promotions, which products to stock, and how to keep consumers engaged. Social data alone does not provide the answers, but its one more data point that will help retailers make better decisions. Look for some vendor consolidation to help make this happen.

In March, acquired leading social monitoring vendor Radian6 and followed up with acquisitions of Heroku and Model Metrics. The notion of Social CRM seems to be going more mainstream now.

4. 2-D Barcodes
Look for more QRCodes on shelf-tags, in newspaper circulars, and on billboards. It's a great portal from the physical world into the digital one that buys us time until augmented reality matures further. Nobody wants to type "www", backslash, and ".com" on their phones.

QRCodes are everywhere. ‘Nuff said.

5. In the words of Microsoft, "To the Cloud!"
My favorite "cloud application" is Evernote. If you take notes on your work laptop, you will inevitably need those notes on your home PC. And if you manage to solve that problem, you'll need to access them from your mobile phone. Evernote stores your notes in the cloud and provides easy ways to access them. Being able to access a service from anywhere and not having to worry about backups, upgrades, etc. is great. Retailers will start to rely on cloud services, both public and private, in the coming year.

There were no shortage of announcements in this area: Amazon’s cloud-based Kindle Fire, Apple’s iCloud, Oracle’s Public Cloud, etc. I saw an interesting presentation showing how BevMo moved their systems to the cloud.  Seems like retailers are starting to consider the cloud for specific uses.

6. F-CommerceTop of Form

Move over "E" and "M" so we can introduce "F-Commerce," which should go mainstream in 2011. Already several retailers have created small stores on Facebook, and it won't be long before Facebook becomes a full-fledged channel in the omni-channel world of retail. The battle between Facebook and Google will heat up over retail, where both stand to make lots of money.

JCPenney and ASOS both put their entire catalogs on Facebook, and lots of other retailers have connected Facebook to their e-commerce site. I still think selling from the newsfeed is the best approach, and several retailers are trying that approach as well. I just don’t see Google+ as a threat to Facebook, so I think that battle is over.  I called 2011 The Year of F-Commerce, and that was probably accurate.

Its good to look back at predictions, but we also have to think about what was missed.  I didn't see Amazon entering the tablet business with such a splash, although in hindsight it was obvious. Nor did I think HP would fall so far so fast.  Look for my 2012 predictions coming soon.

Tuesday Oct 18, 2011

Moneyball for Retail

Back in 2003, Michael Lewis wrote Moneyball:The Art of Winning an Unfair Game which was also released last month as a feature film staring Brad Pitt.  The story focuses on the Oakland A's baseball team modernizing its scouting methods to be less subjective and more analytical, allowing it to compete with better funded teams.

Just like it’s not fair that the Oakland A’s $41M budget had to compete with the Yankee’s $125M budget, many retailers find it difficult to compete against Walmart, Target, and Amazon, companies that spend an enormous amount on IT. But it’s possible to follow Oakland’s lead and compete on analytics.  Retailers that better understand their customers will have an advantage, sometimes regardless of the prices they charge or the products they carry (although you really need all three to be successful over the long-haul).

Aileen Lee of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers presented on this topic at the Web 2.0 Summit, which was covered by Richard MacManus in this article.  (Read the article for some real-world retail examples.)  Even small retailers can gain a competitive advantage if they (1) collect the right data, (2) analyze it correctly, and (3) act upon it quickly.

Traditionally retailers didn't do this type of analysis because the data just wasn't available, but since the advent of e-commerce much more data has been collected.  Other sources include loyalty programs, and more recently, social networks.  Retailers have optimized supply chains, new store locations, and even pricing, but the next generation of analytics will focus on individual consumers, understanding what they want and what offers will influence their purchase.

There are lots of ways to attack the problem, and one that's extremely scalable leverages Oracle's engineered systems as described by Jean-Pierre Dijcks:

Not every retailer needs this much analytical horsepower, but imagine if answers were available at the speed of thought.  Privacy aside, the possibilities to personalize the shopping experience are tremendous.

Tuesday Oct 04, 2011

OpenWorld 2011, Retail Perspective Part 1

The big announcements at OpenWorld this year revolved around engineered systems, where software and hardware are optimized to work together.  Larry Ellison kicked off the conference by explaining that Oracle's engineered systems use a "parallel everywhere" approach to squeezing greater performance out of commodity parts. 

Below are six such systems and my thoughts on their applicability to retail:

1. Exadata

There are several retail customers that are running Exadata with great results.  When lots of data is involved, be it analytical or transactional, Exadata increases database performance, reduces storage and electricity costs, and simplifies through server consolidation.  Exadata is perfect for running merchandising, supply chain, and data warehouse/BI applications.

2. Exalogic

Exadata's brother is Exalogic, the middleware machine.  It shares much of the Exadata architecture but instead of focusing on data, its focused on fast application execution.  It does particularly well with Java-based applications like ATG Web Commerce.

3. SPARC SuperCluster

While Exadata specializes in database workloads and Exalogic specializes in middleware workloads, the SPARC SuperCluster is a general-purchase system that handle both well.  Think of the SuperCluster as Exadata and Exalogic merged together in single lower-cost rack running the new SPARC T4 and Solaris 11.  This might be the best solution for mid-tier retailers that can't invest in Exadata and Exalogic separately.

4. Exalytics

When dealing with data, memory is faster than flash which is faster than disk.  Exadata uses a cost-effective approach by using all three types of storage to maximize performance.  Exalytics, on the other hand, is simply focused on speed and therefore memory. It's a specialized BI Machine that uses the TimesTen in-memory database to render very fast analytics "at the speed of thought."  Essbase is also a database option.  This is where real-time analytics and visualization shine.  Retailers running Hyperion and/or OBIEE will benefit from Exalytics.

5. Big Data Appliance

With Twitter generating a billion tweets per week, we are being overwhelmed with data, and more specifically unstructured data.  To help deal with this deluge of data, the Oracle Big Data Appliance includes the necessary hardware and software to acquire, manage, and analyze huge volumes of data.  It includes open-source versions of Hadoop and R, popular choices for big data problems.  Retailers that are serious about collecting social data about their brands, products, and customers will benefit from this solution.

6. Database Appliance

At the low-end, if your database needs don't require Exadata or Exalytics, then the Oracle Database Appliance is the perfect combination of hardware and database in a simple, cost-effective package.  This data center simplification play will likely resonate with smaller mid-tier retailers.

Part 2 will discuss cloud computing.

Wednesday Jun 29, 2011

Big Data for Retail

Right up there with mobile, social, and cloud is the term "big data," which seems to be popping up lots in the press these days.  Companies like Google, Yahoo, and Facebook have popularized a new class of data technologies meant to solve the problem of processing large amounts of data quickly.  I first mentioned this in a posting back in March 2009.  Put simply, big data implies datasets so large they can't normally be processed using a standard transactional database.  The term "noSQL" is often used in this context as well.

Actually, using parallel processing within the Oracle database combined with Exadata can achieve impressive results.  Look for more from Oracle at OpenWorld as hinted by Jean-Pierre Dijcks.

McKinsey recently released a report on big data in which retail was specifically mentioned as an industry that can benefit from the new technologies.  I won't rehash that report because my friend Rama already did such a good job in his posting, Impact of "Big Data" on Retail.

The presentation below does a pretty good job of framing the problem, although it doesn't really get into the available technologies (e.g. Exadata, Hadoop, Cassandra, etc.) and isn't retail specific.

So when a retailer asks me about big data, here's what I say:  Big data refers to a set of technologies for processing large volumes of structured and unstructured data.  Imagine collecting everything uttered by your customers on Facebook and Twitter and combining it with all the data you can find about the products you sell (e.g. reviews, images, demonstration videos), including competitive data.  Assuming you could process all that data, you could then personalize offers to specific customers based on their tastes, ensure prices are competitive, and implement better local assortments.  It's really not that far off.


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