Furniture retailer Aaron's found application nimbleness through centralization

2019/08/06 Innoverview Read

By 2020, the retailer expects to finish a service-oriented architecture that assumes a centralized view of the customer and all transactions.

For furnishing retailer Aaron's, having a decentralized system allowed it to expand to more than 100 stores a year since the early 2000s with few constraints and dependencies.

But the advantages to having decentralized applications fall short for modern business. 

Now it's more important for Aaron's to understand its customers in real time, which meant centralizing Aaron's systems was as important as its lease-to-own business model. 

"When I started here, technology was a necessary evil. We had to use it to keep track of our accounts," said Aaron’s CIO John Trainor, in an interview with sister publication CIO Dive. "It became valuable in the late 2000s." 

Trainor was at Aaron's 10 years before IT became an operational efficiency driver and evolved into the "center point" for business model improvements. 

Largely influenced by the dot-com boom, modern enterprises are working at "unwinding all of the decentralization of the federation that they did as a part of their good corporate governance a couple of decades ago," Blair Hanley Frank, principal analyst, ISG, told CIO Dive. 

"There's not really a single Big Bang for digital business," said Frank. Centralization "is an evolution that's been playing out."

Come together 

Before the 2000s, large scale enterprises didn't have the same kind of connectivity that's available today. A decentralized system made sense because companies didn't have pervasive high-speed connectivity between data. 

It was relatively common for enterprises to have independently operated divisions within different IT teams and infrastructure, said Frank. There wasn't a huge need for silos to talk to one another. 

The problem with decentralization is a collection of disparate data sources without communication makes crafting a holistic view of the business near impossible. 

Now business is conducted in the digital age, and "born digital businesses" took the "nuclear sword" to how companies operate, said Frank. The companies of the late 1990s, like Amazon, Google and EBay, are the "technology giants that we know today." 

The Aaron's way

The need to centralize systems hit industries at different inflection points. Media, for example, felt the need to digitize almost immediately, but every industry is feeling the demand today.  

Aaron's got a head start in establishing a centralized technology unit. 

In early 2010, Aaron's began centralizing its data for analytics purposes. By 2013, the retailer had real-time customer and transactional information "flowing," said Trainor. 

By 2020, the retailer expects to finish a service-oriented architecture that assumes a centralized view of the customer and all transactions. However, Trainor is preserving enough of the architecture to account for the retailer's decentralized workforce. 

Modern retailers use an environment full of digital signage, or digital content displayed on screens, with sensors in store aisles to track foot traffic, where customer interests are, and purchase and return data.

All of those components generate a significant amount of data, which need a method of management. 

"You're not going to have everything running in one particular standard architecture, because that's not the way that applications work," said Frank. Enterprises use multiple software as a service products as well as legacy applications running on-premise or in hyperscale cloud environments. All of that is working in concert.

Tools for thought

When it comes to the cloud, there will always be a degree of decentralization for the application environment. Enter management tools. 

Aaron's runs on a hybrid cloud environment, predominantly using Microsoft Azure for workloads.

"If you have a cloud data center, if you've used the cloud to get things that you traditionally had running in your own data center, you're doing that typically because you need a certain degree of nimbleness," said Trainor. 

But the cloud offers more than scalability, it provides Aaron's vendor expertise for running a data center "potentially better than you could run your own," said Trainor. The same is true of centralization management tools. 

Microsoft has Visual Studio to talk to on-premise Windows servers instances, similar to how it works with an application running on Azure. Other vendors, like VMware or Red Hat OpenShift have offerings to standardize applications across environments. 

Aaron's uses CloudGenix for its SD-WAN to visualize its network at the application layer.

Using a SD-WAN capability, Aaron's has "a lot more nimbleness on how our 1,600 node network is configured," said Trainor. The addition of centralization management tool can give IT teams more control over their networks and confidence in how applications are performing. 

A lot of networking companies think at the protocol or port level. "They think it's layers of abstraction that are a little bit lower down the stack," said Trainor. But with an application-first view, Aaron's is able to prioritize traffic based on business value instead of "IP jargon."

(Copyright: Retail Dive