Wednesday, 13 August 2014 17:47

Woolworths reveals more about its technology transformation


Retail giant Woolworths provides a glimpse of its IT transformation and its technology roadmap for the coming years.

Woolworths rolled out Gmail in August 2012, and in April 2013 announced a broad deployment of Google Apps.

Then in June this year we learned that the retailer was beginning the replacement of its Windows desktop fleet with Chromebooks and Chromeboxes, using Citrix technology to deliver Windows applications where necessary.

At the time, a Woolworths spokesperson told iTWire "The transition to Google Apps and Chrome is only part of our transformation program of work for the Woolworths Group."

Now more details of the company's plan have become public.

Woolworths head of infrastructure Matt Chamley (pictured) told the recent EMC Forum in Melbourne that although the company was the world's 15th largest retailer, its slender after-tax profit of only 3.85% means it is cost constrained.

Furthermore, the company's existing IT systems are complex, and provisioning a new environment takes six weeks, with infrastructure work on the critical path.

"Business agility is key," he said, explaining that the way internet-based businesses can evolve quickly "is a real threat to us."

Woolworths realised it was "time to re-lay our foundations and move forward," he said, with a view to responsiveness as well as cost savings, a task Mr Chamley likened to "turning an oil tanker into a speedboat."

Which platform could bring that about? Find out on page 2.

The company decided to adopt converged infrastructure, and "Vblock stood out as the best fit for Woolworths."

An agreement between Woolworths, VCE and Wipro meant the Vblock based approach was 27.4% cheaper than the next best product family, he said.

It is not only the best fit for the company, it is also the most mature converged infrastructure product on the market, he told iTWire.

Woolworths initially purchased two Vblock 720 systems, one for each of its data centres, and they were in production within two months of being ordered.

The initial compute and storage capacity of the systems has already been more than doubled, and 969 workloads - about a third of the total - have been migrated so far.

The systems arrive configured and tested, he said, so they ready to be commissioned. Additional capacity is available with a lead time of between six and seven weeks, but VCE provides Woolworths with an extra 20% "dark capacity" that the company has not paid for upfront but can activated if demand should outstrip the plan.

Mr Chamley spoke glowingly about the VCE Release Certification Matrix which means Vblock customers receive extensively tested and certified patches so they know what is and is not compatible with the updates.

This means Woolworths has been able to give junior administrators the job of patching the Vblocks, and "every time we've done it we've finished a week early," he said. "We haven't had a single issue yet."

Page 3: Workloads and storage.

One of the Vblock workloads is the XenDesktop and XenApp software for delivering legacy applications to the company's Chrome device fleet. This currently serves 5000 users, but the number is still growing.

While Woolworths still has a Windows 7 standard operating environment (SOE) in case it is needed, "ultimately it's all-in for Google," Mr Chamley told iTWire.

The user profiles and data are stored on EMC Isilon arrays connected to the Vblock head switches, a configuration only recently supported by EMC.

EMC XtremIO flash storage is being considered to support particular workloads such as VDI - the company is expecting to deploy VDI to 25,000 users.

The Vblocks are a key part of 'Storm Front', the name given to the private cloud under development at Woolworths. "It's no longer about the hardware," Mr Chamley said.

The adoption of Vblock gets infrastructure off the critical path, he told iTWire. Where a large team of administrators and engineers were previously needed to configure systems, it's now a question of managing service levels.

"There will always be an engineer somewhere," but that 'somewhere' will probably be at the hardware vendor or some other supplier.

Moving as much as possible onto a converged platform means that when resources aren't being used for a particular purpose they can be redirected elsewhere. For example, it's now easier to spin up a number of virtual machines to test a new build of a point-of-sale system.

Page 4: Retirement and redeployment.

Mr Chamley said he is working on ways of reflecting this flexibility in the internal charging system. Getting the maximum return on investment means running as many workloads as possible on the Vblocks rather than on special-purpose systems.

For example, Woolworths is about to decommission its IBM mainframes, but intends to keep its HP/UX systems in operation, at least for now. Having access to CPU cycles when you need them is liberating, he explained, whereas dedicated systems impose constraints.

But it's not bad news for Woolworths' mainframe staff. Mr Chamley said the maturity of their management skills is valued, and they are being actively retrained to fill roles where their leadership and process skills can be applied.

Similarly, multiple older EMC storage devices - Clariion and DMX arrays - will soon be decommissioned as a result of the Vblock deployment. The increased density provided by Vblock means "I'm replacing rows [of equipment] with racks," Mr Chamley told iTWire.

Furthermore, the company is already moving towards a hybrid cloud, having defined a number of zones (legacy hardware, private cloud, domestic public cloud, etc) and identified candidate applications for each zone.

"You'll probably have multiple public cloud providers," he said, due to the varying requirements of different workloads, but "it's all about one ecosystem, and it's about managing services not components."

Asked to look further ahead, Mr Chamley said "we've got a three year plan" calling for policy-based management, so technologies such as converged systems, software defined networking, and orchestration are high on the list.

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Stephen Withers

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Stephen Withers is one of Australia¹s most experienced IT journalists, having begun his career in the days of 8-bit 'microcomputers'. He covers the gamut from gadgets to enterprise systems. In previous lives he has been an academic, a systems programmer, an IT support manager, and an online services manager. Stephen holds an honours degree in Management Sciences and a PhD in Industrial and Business Studies.



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