Published on April 27th, 2021 | by Emergent Enterprise0
How Walmart Adapted its IoT Strategy to the Pandemic
No matter how big or savvy, no retail company could have anticipated the dramatic changes in customer demand that was brought about by the pandemic. Even though armed with some of the most sophisticated technology in the world, Walmart had to become reactive instead of proactive with their Internet of Things and artificial intelligence supply chain strategy. This fascinating interview of Walmart’s VP of technology Sanjay Radhakrishnan by Manasa Gogineni at VentureBeat takes you through the Walmart IoT strategy journey and how they use the technology to support the retail behemoth.The interview shares the responsibility Walmart has as a mega-corporation and a local neighbor and how IoT helps the effort to keep freezers and HVAC running with minimum downtime and your favorite frozen pizza always in stock. Your next pepperoni slice was most likely provided in part by the Internet of Things.
Image Credit: Spencer Tirey / Walmart
Walmart made $559 billion in total revenue during the COVID-19 pandemic’s first fiscal year, up from $514.4 billion in fiscal 2019, thanks in part to newly integrated internet of things (IoT) capabilities to improve food quality and lower energy consumption. Walmart claims its systems for IoT deployments are built at a scale unmatched across the retail industry: The company reports that, every day, it takes in approximately 1.5 billion messages and analyzes over one terabyte of data. This proprietary software includes a cloud-based dashboard application to manage volume and detect anomalous events, such as refrigeration failures, so they can ostensibly be fixed more quickly, saving ice cream from melting while driving corporate profit.
VP of technology Sanjay Radhakrishnan oversees Walmart’s IoT platforms and applications. Radhakrishnan sat down with VentureBeat to describe the giant retail chain’s long-term data strategy and how it’s changed since last March to accommodate changing store ecosystems across the U.S.
VentureBeat: How would you describe Walmart’s approach to IoT at a high level?
Sanjay Radhakrishnan: When we started on this journey, we had three key objectives. One was to address this at the scale of Walmart’s, that Walmart can actually leverage the impact of IoT at Walmart scale. The second objective was to ensure that we are the control plane for our data. So, we control where our data lands, and we have the ability to convert into business insights. And then the last objective was really maintaining that connection to our end customer experience. And then ensuring that we are being good corporate citizens, with respect to our sustainability initiatives. So just want to set the stage that when we started on this IoT journey, those were the three main drivers that we were looking to solve.
VentureBeat: I’m really interested in that IoT journey. Could you tell me more about how Walmart has evolved its tech platforms over the past couple of years? And what has that progression has looked like, maybe in the past 5, 10, even 15 years?
Radhakrishnan: You know, with those three objectives in the background, we have always had all kinds of devices in our stores. And these devices typically come from vendors or original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) that actually manufactured these devices. Typically this equipment comes with some kind of an HDMI human machine interface that’s on the machine, so you can actually go connect to it and collect data out of these devices in a one-off fashion.
And we’ve always done that. But with this IoT journey, what we really wanted to do was we wanted to move into the driver’s seat, where we can actually normalize these datasets coming from all these different machines, different devices, and different OEMs. We normalize that data, and we control our data using IoT from these devices and provide those data sets to our business in a way where we can actually convert them into useful information and useful insights and really improve that end customer experience. So our journey really has been, instead of individual point-to-point access from these individual machines, on how we can grow this at scale by being the control plane and getting all this data from equipment, normalize it, and simplify it into our language so that we can do intelligent things things with it, right? And so that focus is really shifted inside Walmart by building our own software that we are using to form that control.
VentureBeat: That’s fascinating. And, in building this proprietary software at such a great scale, did Walmart run into any particular kinds of challenges or problems that it then worked to overcome?
Radhakrishnan: The biggest challenge we have is just the variety of devices that we have in our ecosystem. They come from different OEMs, they are across different generations of these devices, and they all speak different languages. And what this means to us is, in our world, we are dealing with a wide mix of sensors, a range of protocols, and really a myriad of information models. So our approach has been to look at how we build our software and where we are talking to all these devices. You know, talking to the different protocols. But we have an ability to kind of normalize all of that data into one consistent IoT specification. That’s a Walmart IoT specification. And then we apply the right kind of data quality checks, so that we can certify the data and drop it into our control plane. And then we take it from there.