Listen to the podcast. Find it on iTunes/iPod. Download the transcript. Sponsor: VMware.
Dana Gardner: Hi, this is Dana Gardner, Principal Analyst at Interarbor Solutions, and you're listening to BriefingsDirect.
Today, we present a sponsored podcast discussion on how outerwear and sportswear maker and distributor Columbia Sportswear has used virtualization techniques and benefits to improve their business operations.
We’ll see how Columbia Sportswear’s use of deep virtualization assisted in rationalizing its platforms and data center, as well as led to benefits in their enterprise resource planning (ERP) implementation. We’ll also see how it formed a foundation for improved disaster recovery (DR) best practices.
Stay with us now to learn more about how better systems make for better applications that deliver better business results. Here to share their virtualization journey is Michael Leeper, Senior Manager of IT Engineering at Columbia Sportswear in Portland, Oregon. Welcome, Michael. [Disclosure: VMware is a sponsor of BriefingsDirect podcasts.]
Michael Leeper: Good morning, Dana.
Gardner: We’re also here with Suzan Frye, Manager of Systems Engineering at Columbia Sportswear. Welcome to BriefingsDirect, Suzan.
Suzan Frye: Good morning, Dana.
Gardner: Let’s start with you, Michael. Tell me a little bit about how you got into virtualization. What were some of the requirements that you needed to fulfill at the data center level? Then we’ll dig down into where that went and what it paid off.
Leeper: Pre-2009, we'd experimented with virtualization. It'd be one of those things that I had my teams working on, mostly so we could tell my boss that we were doing it, but there wasn’t a significant focus on it. It was a nice toy to play with in the corner and it helped us in some small areas, but there were no big wins there.
In mid-2009, the board of directors at Columbia decided that we, as a company, needed a much stronger DR plan. That included the construction of a new data center for us to house our production environments offsite.
As we were working through the requirements of that project with my teams, it became pretty clear for us that virtualization was the way we were going to make that happen. For various reasons, we set off on this path of virtualization for our primary data center, as we were working through issues surrounding multiple data centers and DR processes.
Our technologies weren't based on the physical world any more. We were finding more issues in physical than we were in virtual. So we started down this path to virtualize our entire production world. By that point, mid-2010 had come around, and we were ready to go. We had built our DR stack that virtualized our primary data centers taking us to the 80 percent to 90 percent virtual machine (VM) rate.
We were extremely successful in that process. We were able to move our primary data center over a couple of weekends with very little downtime to the end users, and that was all built on VMware technology.
About a week after we had finished that project, I got a call from our CIO, who said he had purchased a new ERP system, and Columbia was going to start down the path of a fully new ERP implementation.
I was being asked at that time what platform we should run it on, and we had a clean slate to look everywhere we could to find what our favorite, what we felt was the most safe and stable platform to run the crown jewels of the company which is ERP. For us that was going to be the SAP stack.
So it wasn't a hard decision to virtualize ERP for us. We were 90 percent virtual anyway. That’s what we were good at, and that’s where teams were staffed and skilled at. What we did was design the platform that we felt was going to meet our corporate standards and really meet our goals. For us that was running ERP on VMware.
Gardner: It sounds as if you had a good rationale for moving into a highly virtualized environment, but that it made it easier for you to do other things. Am I reading too much into it, or would you really say that your migration for ERP was much easier as a result of being highly virtualized?
Leeper: There are a couple of things there. Specifically in the migration to virtualization, we knew we were going to have to go through the effort of moving operating systems from one site to another. We determined that we could do that once on the physical side, relatively easily, and probably the same amount of effort as doing it once by converting physical to virtual.
The problem was that the next time we wanted to move services back from one facility to another in the physical world, we're going to have to do that work again. In the virtual space, we never had to do it again.
To make the teams go through the effort of virtualizing a server to then move it to another data center, we all need to do is do the work once. For my engineers, any time we get them to do the mundane stuff once it's better than doing it multiple times. So we got that effort taken care of in that early phase of the project to virtualize our environments.
For the ERP platform specifically, this was a net new implementation. We were converting from a JD Edwards environment running on IBM big iron to a brand-new SAP stack. We didn’t have anything to migrate. This was really built from scratch.
So we didn’t have to worry about a lot of the legacy configurations or legacy environments that may have been there for us. We got to build it new. And by that point in our journey, virtualized was the only way for us to do it. That’s what we do, it’s how we do it, and that's what we’re good at.
Across the board
Gardner: Just for the benefit of our audience, let’s hear a bit more about Columbia Sportswear. You’re manufacturing, distributing, and retailing. I assume you’re doing an awful lot online. Give us a sense of the business requirements behind your story around virtualization, DR, and ERP.
Leeper: Columbia Sportswear is based in Portland, Oregon. We're the worldwide leader in apparel and accessories. We sell primarily outerwear and sportswear products, and a little bit of footwear, globally. We have about 4,000 employees, 50 some-odd physical locations, not counting retail, around the world. The products are primarily manufactured in Asia with sales distribution happening in both Europe and United States.
My teams out of the U.S. manage our global footprint, and we are the sole source of IT support globally from here.
Gardner: Let’s go to Suzan. Suzan, tell me a little bit about the pace at which you were able to embark on this virtualization journey. I saw some statistics that you went from 25 percent to 75 percent in about eight months which was really impressive, and as Michael pointed out, now over 90 percent. How did you get the pace and what was important in keeping that pace going?
Frye: The only way we could do it was with virtualization and using the efficiencies we gained with that. We centrally manage all of IT and engineering globally out of our headquarters in Portland. When we were given the initial project to move our data center and not only move our data center but provide DR services as well, it was a really easy sell to the business.
We could go to the business and explain to them the benefits of virtualization and what it would mean for their application. They wouldn’t have to rebuild and they wouldn’t have to bring in the vendor or any consultants. We can just take their systems, virtualize them, move them to our new data center, and then provide that automatic DR with Site Recovery Manager (SRM).
We had nine months to move our data center and we basically were all hands on deck, everybody on the server engineering team, storage, and networking teams as well. And we had executive support and sponsorship. It was very easy for us to go to the business market virtualization to the business and start down that path where we were socializing the idea. A lot of people, of course, were dragging their feet a little bit. We all know that story.
But once they realized that we could move their application, bring it back up, and then move it between data centers almost seamlessly, it was an instant win for us. We went from that 20 percent to 30 percent virtualization. We had about 75 percent when we were in the middle of our DR project, and today we’re actually at around 93 percent.
Gardner: One of the things I hear a lot from people that are doing multiple things with virtualization, like you did, is where to start, how to do this in the right order? Is there anything that you could come back with from your experience on how to do it in the order that incentivizes people to adopt, as you pointed out, but then also allows you to move into these other benefits in a way that compounds the return on investment (ROI)?
Frye: I think it surprises people that we have a "virtualize first" strategy today. Now it’s assumed that your system will be virtual and then all the benefits, the flexibility, the portability, the optimization, and the efficiencies that come with it.
But like most companies, we had to start with some of our lower tier or lower service-level agreement (SLA) systems, our development systems, and start working with the business on getting them to understand some of the benefits that they could gain by working with virtual systems.
Performance is there
Again people are always surprised. Will you have SQL virtualized? Do you have SAP virtualized? And the answer is yes, today we do, and the performance is there, the optimization is there, and that flexibility is there.
If you’re just starting out today, my advice would be to go ahead and start small. Give the business what they want, do it right, and give it the resources it needs to have. Don’t under-promise, over-deliver, and let the business start seeing the efficiencies that they can realize, and some of those hidden efficiencies as well.
We can support DR testing. We can support almost instant data refreshes, cloning, and snapping, so their upgrades are more seamless, and they have an easier back-out plan.
From an engineering and development perspective, we're giving them technologies that they could only dream of four or five years ago. And it’s really benefited the business in that we’re auto-provisioning. We’re provisioning in minutes versus days. We’re granting resources when needed.
It’s a more dynamic process for the business, and we’re really seeing that people are saying, "You’re not just a cost center anymore. You’re enabling us, you’re helping us to do what we need to do and basically doing it on-demand." So our team has really started shining these last few years, especially because of our high virtualization percentage.
Leeper: For a company that's looking to move to this virtualization space, they’ve got to get some wins. You’ve got to tackle some environments or some projects that you can be successful at, and hopefully by partnering with some business users and business owners who are willing to take a little bit of a chance.
If you set off trying to truly attack an entire data center virtualization project, you’re probably not going to be really successful at it. There are a lot of ways that the business, application vendors, and various things can throw some roadblocks in this.
Once you start chipping away at a couple of them and get above the easy stuff, go find one that maybe on paper is a little difficult, but go get that one done. Then you can very quickly point back to success on that piece and start working your way through the rest of them.
Gardner: Yeah, one of those roadblocks that you mentioned I've heard people refer to is issues around licensing and tracking and audits. How did you deal with that? Was that an issue for you when you got into moving onto a virtualized environment?
Leeper: Sure. It’s one of the first things that always comes up. I'm going to separate VMware and the VMware licensing from app and application licensing. On the application side of the house, it’s getting better today than it was two or three years ago when we started this process.
You have to be confident in your ability to deal with vendors and demand support on virtualization layers, work with them to help them understand their virtual licensing packages, and be very confident in your ability to get there.
Early on, we had to just look at some vendors straight in the eye and tell them we were going to do this, because this was the best thing for our business, and they needed to figure out how to support us. In some cases, that's just having your team, when you call them support, not have to open with "We’re running this on a VM."
We know we can replicate and then duplicate things in the background when we need to, but sometimes you just have to be smart about how you engage application partners that may not be quite as advanced as we are and work through that.
On the VMware side, it came down to their understanding where our needs were and how to properly license some of the stuff and work through some of those complexities. But it wasn't anything we spent significant amount of time on.
Gardner: You both mentioned this importance of getting the buy-in on the business side and showing wins early, that sort of thing. Because it’s hard many times to put a concrete connection between something that happens in IT and then a business benefit, was there anything that you can think of specifically that benefited your business that you could then turn around and bring back and say, "Well that’s because we did X, Y, and Z with virtualization?"
Leeper: One of the cool ones we’ve talked about and used for one of our key wins involves our entire architecture obviously with virtualization being key to that.
We had a business unit acquire an SAP module, specifically the BPC for BW module. That was independent of our overall SAP project and they were being run out of a separate business group.
They came to IT in the very late stages of this purchase and said, "These are our needs and requirements," and it was a fairly intense set of equipment. It was multiple servers, multiple environments, kind of up and down the stack, and they were bringing in outside consultants to help them with their implementation.
The interesting thing was, they had spec'd their statement of work (SOW) with these consultants to not start for the 4 to 6 weeks, because they really believed that's how long it was going to take IT to get them their environments and their hardware, using some of their old understanding of IT’s capabilities.
And reality was that we could provide them their test and developement environments that they needed to start with these consultants within a matter of hours, not weeks, and we were able to do so. I had the pleasure of calling the finance VP and informing him that his environments were ready and they were just probably going to sit idle for the next 4-6 weeks until the consultants actually showed up, which surprised all sorts of people.
Add things later
We didn't have all their production capacities, but those are things we could add later. They didn’t need production capacity in the first month of the project anyway. So our ability to have that virtualized infrastructure and be able to rapidly deploy to meet business requirements is one of the really kind of cool things we can do these days.
Gardner: Suzan, you’ve mentioned that as an enabler, not a roadblock. So being able to keep up with the speed of business, I suppose, is the best way to characterize this?
Frye: Absolutely. Going back to SRM, another big win for us was, as we were rolling out on some of our Tier 1 mission-critical applications, it was decided by the business that they wanted to test DR. They were going down the path of doing that the old-fashioned way by backing up databases, restoring databases, and taking weeks to do that, days and weeks.
We said, "We think we have a better way with SRM and our replication technologies. We have that data here. Why don't you let us clone that data and stand it up for you?" Literally, within 10 seconds, they had a replica of their data.
So we were enabling them to do their DR testing with SRM, on demand, when they wanted to do that, as well as giving them the benefit of doing the faster cloning and data refreshes. That was just a day-to-day, operational activity that they had no idea we could do for them.
It goes back to working with business and letting them know what you can do. From a day-to-day, practical perspective that was one of our biggest wins. It's going to specific business units and application owners and saying, "We think we have a better way. What do you think about this?" Once they got their hands on it, just looking at their faces was really a good moment for us.
Gardner: Sure, and of course, as an online retailer, having that dependability that DR provides has to be something that lets you sleep a little better at night.
Frye: Just a little bit.
Gardner: Let's talk a little bit about where you go now. Another thing that I often hear in the market is that the benefits of virtualization are ongoing. It's a journey that keeps providing milestones. It doesn't really end.
Do you have any plans around private cloud perhaps, getting more elasticity and fit-for-purpose benefits out of your implementations? Perhaps you're looking to bring other applications into the fold, or maybe you’ve got some other plans around delivering on business applications at lower cost.
So where do you go next with your virtualization payoff?
Leeper: We consider ourselves having up a private cloud on-site. My team will probably start laughing at me for using that term, but we do believe we have a very flexible and dynamic environment to deploy, based on business request on premises, and we're pretty proud of that. It works pretty well for us.
Where we go next is all over the place. One of the things we're pretty happy about is the fact that we can think about things a little differently now than probably a lot of our peers, because of how migratory our workloads can be, given the virtualization.
We started looking into things like hybrid cloud approaches and the idea of maybe moving some of our workloads out of our premises, our own data facilities, to a cloud provider somewhere else.
For us, that's not necessarily the discussion around the classic public cloud strategies for scalability and some of those things. For us, it's a temporary space at times, if we are, say, moving an office, we want to be able to provide zero downtime, and we have physical equipment on-premises.
It would be nice to be able to shutdown their physical equipment, move their data, move their workloads up to a temporary spot for four or five weeks, and then bring it back at some point, and let users never see an outage while they are working from home or on the road.
There are some interesting scenarios around significant DR for us and locations where we don't have real-time DR set up. For instance, we were looking into some issues in Japan, when Japan unfortunately a year or so ago was dealing with the earthquake and the tsunami fallout in power.
We were looking at how we can possibly move our data out of the country for a period of time, while the infrastructure was stabilizing, specifically power, and then maybe bring it back when things settle down again.
Unfortunately we weren't quite virtual on the edge yet there, but today we think that's something we could do. Thinking about how and where we move data to be at the right place at the right time is where we think the next big win for us.
Then, we get into the application profiles that users are asking for and their ability to spin up environments very quickly to just test something. It lets us get out of having IT as being the roadblock to innovation. A lot of times the business or part of our innovation teams come up with some idea on a concept, an application, or whatever it is. They don't have to wait for IT to fulfill their needs. The environments are right there for them.
So I challenge the teams routinely to think a little bit differently about how we've done things in the past, because our architecture is dramatically different than it was even two years ago.
Gardner: Well, great. We have to leave it there. We've been talking about how outerwear and sportswear maker, Columbia Sportswear has used virtualization technologies and models to improve their business operations. We’ve also seen how better systems makes for better applications that can deliver better business results.
So I’d like to thank our guests for joining this BriefingsDirect podcast. We have been here with Michael Leeper, Senior Manager of IT Engineering at Columbia Sportswear in Portland, Oregon. Thank you so much, Michael.
Leeper: Thank you.
Gardner: And we have been joined by Suzan Frye, Manager of Systems Engineering, also there at Columbia Sportswear. Thanks to you, Suzan.
Frye: Thanks, Dana.
Gardner: This is Dana Gardner, Principal Analyst at Interarbor Solutions. Thanks to you all audience for listening, and come back next time.
Listen to the podcast. Find it on iTunes/iPod. Download the transcript. Sponsor: VMware.
Transcript of a sponsored BriefingsDirect podcast on how Columbia Sportswear has harnessed virtualization to provide a host of benefits for its business units. Copyright Interarbor Solutions, LLC, 2005-2012. All rights reserved.
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