In recent times, there has been a dramatic increase in the volume of IT security attacks and data breaches. In fact, a month rarely passes without another high-profile company falling victim to a data breach, and the resulting negative publicity can be crippling. Maintaining the integrity of a company’s IT infrastructure and the data it holds within is a necessary facet of responsible business ownership today.

For businesses such as retailers, with multiple locations – potentially throughout the globe – keeping all their branches safe and secure is especially problematic. We carried out a recent study across 300 retail IT professionals in the US and UK and one of the most revealing statistics was that, on average, retailers now experience two cyber-attacks every week.

The distributed nature of branch IT presents a unique set of security and compliance challenges that are radically different to the datacentre. Getting security wrong is not an option. If a branch’s IT is breached in a mass crypto-locker attack, the company’s entire IT estate may be unable to operate essential systems on any of their sites, effectively causing the company to go dark.

Patch All The Holes

It is important that branch IT doesn’t become the weak point in a network that can be exploited. However, this isn’t easy. Branch IT is, by its very nature, highly distributed and often remote, with limited – if any – local IT presence. This pushes up the cost of maintaining a large branch IT estate effectively and can disadvantage an already overstretched IT team when trying to rapidly mitigate or fix the problems arising at one or many branches.

When dealing with a distributed IT estate, one of the most imperative defensive tactics is to ensure that your infrastructure is current, by regularly applying security patches and updates. It is crucial not only to protect infrastructure, but also to ensure your business is compliant with the relevant frameworks.

Research from Verizon suggests that over 70% of security breaches come from not keeping systems up to date. In fact, the impact of this year’s most infamous cyber-attacks, the WannaCry ransomware attack and the Equifax breach, could have been mitigated if available patches had been installed.

Within the highly distributed networks seen in the branch IT environment, keeping patches current and up-to-date is a non-trivial challenge. There is a complex supply chain that needs to be built and maintained upstream of any deployed systems. To reduce risk and make the task manageable, automation must be at the heart of any viable current solution, otherwise the risk of manual error or omission becomes too great.

A Growing Problem

The demands on branch IT are increasing, fuelled by the need to drive operational efficiencies through innovation in the branch and — for retailers — enhanced consumer experiences. This can only be achieved by having an agile infrastructure that can accommodate local workloads in the branch. Companies need an infrastructure that they can use to prototype and test new applications and services — and if successful, roll out in a fast and efficient manner.

To deliver what these modern retailers need, branch IT must be fully virtualised. But as many virtualisation solutions are designed for datacentres, with inherent high levels of centralisation, security and local support skills, it’s important that branch virtualisation solutions come with branch scale and distributed management and security tools.

Moving Towards The Edge

In the branch environment, IT infrastructure needs to include back-office systems that perform quickly and effectively, and front office ones that deliver applications to enable the right customer experience — online and offline. But, importantly, it needs low support overheads and no need for on-site expertise.

To deliver powerful in-store, branch level IT without complex in-store management and security challenges, there needs to be a redefinition of computing capabilities towards the edge. Branch IT must be fully virtualised to run all applications, centrally managed to lift the support burden, and easily deployed and adapted across a variable quality distributed network to deliver cloud levels of business flexibility.

A Retail Evolution

As businesses continue to adapt to changes in the global marketplace, it is critical that they have the IT infrastructure in place that supports this evolution. The market for retailers is highly competitive and will continue to grow. Those that survive will embrace the latest technology to revolutionise the in-store experience for their consumers, whilst at the same time protecting their data with rigorous security procedures.

Security is central. It is not just about implementing state-of-the-art applications, but about maintaining a secure IT infrastructure reaching to the tip of every branch; an infrastructure which has been designed from the ground up with security in mind. Maintaining a distributed IT infrastructure comes with challenges. But automation and the right tools can assist in both preventing cyber security attacks, and minimising their impact.