The cannabis industry is still very much in its infancy. There are a lot of shoestring budget "good enough" hardware put in place in cultivations, MIPS labs and retail operations. This ranges form cheap all-in-one "gateway" devices provided by internet service providers to consumer grade camera systems to cheap desktop or laptop computers running critical systems such as the seed-to-sale, point-of-sale, and digital menu systems.
While these may work and be adequate, these systems are rarely built for the conditions present in cultivation or MIPS operations, nor are they built to provide the level of uptime that a retail establishment requires. Likewise, these systems offer minimal security options and are rarely configured according to information security best practices. Further, these systems are not connected through a unified user management system, making employee onboarding and termination more time consuming and less secure. Lastly, these systems are not typically designed for remote management, making fixes, patches, backups and updates more expensive and less likely to be done.
When considering hardware for any commercial application, budget shouldnt be the primary factor. Rather, you should consider your needs in terms of redundancy, security, reliability, manageability, and scalability and align your budget to meet your needs.
For mission critical applications, such as your point of sale/seed to sale system, downtime is the enemy. Not only does it cost you to repair the system, it also costs you lost business, lost customers, and employee downtime. A day’s outage could easily reach into the tens of thousands of dollars for a high volume establishment. Redundancy is key in mitigating this. Redundancy at its simplest just means having multiple systems available and capable of performing the same task so that if one fails, the others continue to be available. Of course, redundancy comes with cost, and it is wise to be selective about your investments in redundancy. A few core systems that should be redundant:
Internet Service: Most operations require internet service in order to transact business. This is doubly true for operations which use a cloud based seed-to-sale or point-of-sale system. If your internet goes down, you can’t transact business. Consider having a secondary internet service provided on a separate local loop. This will ensure that if your primary internet service goes down that you will be able to continue transacting business with a minimum of downtime. This can be a simple cold standby, which would require some effort to switch over. A step up from a cold standby is to add a router capable of switching service automatically so that if one service goes down, the router kicks over to the secondary service with no-one noticing.
Application Server: If you are running a local seed-to-sale system, you need to have a server running the software and that server needs to have redundant systems. Specifically, your application server should have redundant network cards, redundant power supplies and redundant hard drives in a RAID configuration.
Point of Sale: The first step in having redundancy is to have multiple point of sale stations. This ensures that if one system fails you can continue transacting business in a limited fashion. In this scenario, however, it is advisable to keep spare hardware available in case of failure. If it is pre-configured, you can just plug in the new device and you’re good to go.
The best way to avoid downtime is to invest in reliable systems that are designed to withstand the environmental conditions and level of usage that they will be exposed to. For example, consider investing in environmentally sealed “toughbook” type laptops for your cultivation, extraction, and kitchen environments. They are designed to withstand impact, moisture, dust & dirt, electrostatic shock and exposure to solvents and other industrial chemicals. While these systems command a premium over less rugged options, the cost is minimal in the overall scheme of your operation and will provide many years of reliable service. Another area of consideration is in the reliability of your hard disks. Hard disk failure is the most common type of hardware failure, and it is often due to the reliability of the drives in question. Hard drives are designed to a specific average length of time before they fail, often called “mean time to failure”. Commercial quality systems typically include hard drives with a longer MTTF versus their consumer grade bargain counterparts.
We live in a world where all of our devices are interconnected by the internet. This has made possible the remarkable transformation of the way we do business, communicate with friends, and market and purchase products. This revolution, however, has exposed our business and personal information to hackers, identity thieves and other nefarious players. Security, then, should be at the top of mind for any company, and doubly so for the cannabis industry. Consumer grade hardware, however, and networking equipment in particular, typically offers minimal options for security configuration. Basic password authentication, limited vulnerability testing and infrequent security updates leave these systems especially vulnerable. Further, since these systems offer little in the way of monitoring or management, it often takes weeks or months to discover that a device has been compromised.
The risks for a security breach are severe. It could result in access to your security cameras, customer lists, financial data, personal health or credit card info as well as trade secrets and company documents. Information security is no longer optional, it is imperative that you adhere to InfoSec best practices and that you have hardware that supports you in this effort.
Consumer grade systems are designed to meet the needs of consumers and rarely offer features that businesses need. One of key feature sets that is omitted from consumer grade hardware is manageability. In this context, manageability refers to the capability of hardware to be monitored and configured remotely. This is rarely necessary for consumer systems but is of critical importance business. For small businesses, remotely manageable hardware can significantly reduce time and cost to repair hardware failures and makes it easier for IT support to detect issues and configure systems on the fly. If you outsource your IT services, providers will typically require remotely manageable systems. Likewise, if you have distributed locations, having remotely manageable systems allows you to manage all of your systems from a centralized location.
Some Devices that should be remotely managed:
Desktops/Laptops: Increasingly, users are working in distributed environments. Whether it’s a home office, a remote cultivation facility, a kitchen or a retail location, users are no longer bound to a desk. This of course makes managing employee hardware more challenging. Remote monitoring and management can considerably reduce the cost and time required to manage, monitor and configure end user hardware.
Server Hardware: Server hardware is often kept in off-site locations such as colocation/hosting facilities. When it is onsite, it’s typically because the location is remote and has limited bandwidth/connectivity. In either case, these systems are running mission critical applications. Being able to centrally manage these systems, deploy updates, perform backups and remotely monitor these systems for uptime is essential to maintaining a cost effective IT stack.
Switches: Switches are a core component of business IT infrastructure. They provide internet/ethernet service to all the devices within a network. Commercial grade switches also provide capabilities for creating secure subnetworks, prioritizing traffic, throttling bandwidth usage as well as remote monitoring and management capabilities. Switches are often the first systems able to alert IT resources of an outage on a downstream system and, as such, it is critical to invest in “managed” or “smart” switches to support a robust and remotely manageable infrastructure, particularly for remote locations such as cultivation facilities.
Wifi/Routers: Like switches, routers are a core component of a network. They provide access to the internet and perform crucial services for routing date to the correct systems. Additionally, they provide critical security functionality such as firewalls, VPN, VLANs and port forwarding. Often, these devices also provide wifi capabilities. Consumer grade devices rarely offer the level of functionality required of a commercial network, and can be considerably less secure, less monitorable and less configurable. A key consideration here is the ability to monitor such devices for intrusion, outages and excessive bandwidth usage that might indicate a problem. As such, investing in pro-sumer or commercial quality routers and wireless devices provides your business with a more secure and resilient network than can be achieved with low quality consumer products.
Capacity & Scalability
Consumer grade systems are rarely designed to support large scale operations. Likewise, they aren’t designed for expansion as an organization grows. For businesses positioning for rapid growth and expansion, having scalable systems is a critical factor. Often what works for a ten-person company is completely inadequate for a fifty-person company. Scalability is the capability of hardware to be expanded to support greater demand. This can be achieved through upgrading existing hardware, but is more often achieved by adding additional devices. Such scalability requires that the devices be able to communicate with each other in a common language and predictable results. Such functionality is simply not available on consumer systems. As such, any company positioning for growth should factor hardware scalability into their IT strategy and purchasing decisions.