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Why Target thinks enterprise IoT has finally arrived

A Target store in Manhattan.

Welcome to Protocol | Enterprise, your comprehensive roundup of everything you need to know about the week in cloud and enterprise software. This Thursday: how IoT is slowly making its way into the enterprise, a big win for Google and software developers at the Supreme Court, and Okta's ambitious growth plans.

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The Big Story

Things afoot

"IoT has been hyped forever, right?" Target CIO Mike McNamara answered when I asked which emerging technologies he finds interesting right now. But the pandemic changed his thinking about the value of IoT and edge computing.

In the early days of lockdown last year, Target was a lifeline for people with few options for groceries and other necessities. The company had to quickly figure out how to follow local mandates regarding store capacity, and assigning an employee to stand by the front door with a counter just wasn't going to work across Target's 1,900 U.S. stores.

The answer was staring them in the face. Like most retailers, Target already had cameras pointed at those entrances.

  • Company developers quickly put together an application based around "a simple algorithm" that counted people as they entered and exited the store, McNamara told Protocol.
  • That information was processed and distributed to the handheld computers that Target employees carry around its stores, which can be quite large.
  • "Sounds relatively trivial, but it's actually quite sophisticated when you think about it: you've got distributed sensors, you've got [machine learning] running at the edge, and then you've got all of that pumping events back into a business application that's held on a team member's mobile," McNamara said.
  • Target deployed the basic application to some stores for testing within a week of starting the project, and had it running nationally within a couple of weeks, he said.

After the cloud comes the edge. The pandemic led to a historic surge of interest in cloud computing, but that interest is now expanding to edge computing and IoT. "I've never been excited about IoT, really, before now," McNamara said.

  • Companies like Target that already understood the value of the cloud are finding new ways to improve their operations at the edge.
  • 5G hype might have been one of the few areas to exceed IoT hype over the past few years, but after slow gains the past two years, faster and more reliable wireless networks are becoming widespread. 5G networks are designed to connect a vast number of devices.
  • Edge infrastructure is developing rapidly: Companies like Fastly and Cloudflare are adding more computing power to their networks, and cloud providers and mobile carriers are pairing off like vaccinated singles.
  • And as we learned last year during our panel discussion on edge computing, even computing-intensive tasks like machine learning are now possible in constrained environments, like cameras above store entrances.

Forgive the pun or don't, but Target is an edge case. Few businesses today are poised to take advantage of IoT the way Target did. That has a lot to do with investments McNamara made.

  • With 4,000 developers and data scientists, the company can afford to build home-grown technology to suit its own needs.
  • Any retail operation has a lot of moving parts across stores, distribution centers and delivery trucks that can be hard to track and optimize with conventional tools. That's another incentive to invest in IoT.

But technology doesn't stay in niches very long. In the early days of cloud computing, what began as interesting experiments turned into the fastest-growing model for enterprise computing.

  • "I've seen a lot of point applications of IoT over the years, but I think actually now we're getting to the place where we can create really great platforms, and then the use cases will come later," McNamara said.

— Tom Krazit

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This Week On Protocol

Bull's-eye: Check out the rest of my interview with Mike McNamara from earlier this week, in which he outlined how Target built a multicloud strategy that gives it flexibility across cloud providers and its own data centers. He also explained why we should think of open-source software as one of the most pivotal breakthroughs in tech history.

All prayers invoked: Google finally prevailed this week in its decade-long dispute with Oracle over whether or not APIs should be protected by copyright. By a 6-2 margin, the Supreme Court decided that reimplementing APIs in order to achieve interoperability is totally cool, to the relief of developers fearful of a new tax on software.

Hail to the bus driver: Ever wonder how the legions of Silicon Valley shuttle operators fared during a pandemic that temporarily ended the punishing 101 commute? Protocol's Anna Kramer tracked down several drivers and the answer is better than you might have thought.

Five Questions For...

Ted Elliott, CEO, Copado

What's the best piece of advice you could give to someone starting their first tech job?

You never get your time back, so only do work that matters to you and find a job that will accelerate your own learning.

What was the first computer that made you realize the power of computing and connectivity?

In 1981, my dad and I went to pick up a Vector Graphics 64 in Concord, California. As a kid, this was the first computer that made me realize the power of computing. It had a Star Trek scenario game that died after a certain number of moves that exceeded the 64k of RAM. I didn't understand connectivity until a friend showed me the first AT&T website he and his brothers built and were hosting from their apartment in the Marina District in San Francisco in 1994; it was the first time I saw a browser.

What will be the biggest challenge for cloud computing over the coming decade?

Bridging the digital divide. We are in the process of an industrial revolution that happens once a century. Educating people to participate is essential to grow the economy.

What is one book that changed your professional mindset?

"Blue Ocean Strategy" by W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne. The book is about creating and capturing uncontested market space, thereby making the competition irrelevant. It is based on the view that market boundaries and industry structure are not a given and can be reconstructed by the actions and beliefs of industry players. I found that it is an essential read for startups.

Who do you look to as a mentor?

My dad. He taught me that budgets are decisions and that as long as you are learning new things you are growing as a person. He exposed me to computers, startups and how to fund a business. I still call him and discuss presentations, the business and leadership decisions.

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