Through our panel discussion at the recent VMworld 2014 Conference in San Francisco, we explore how retailer Columbia Sportswear has made great strides in improving their business results through modernized IT, and where they expect to go next with their software-defined strategy.
To learn more about the new wave of IT, we sat down with Suzan Pickett, Manager of Global Infrastructure Services at Columbia Sportswear in Portland, Oregon; Tim Melvin, Director of Global Technology Infrastructure at Columbia, and Carlos Tronco, Lead Systems Engineer at Columbia Sportswear. The discussion is moderated by me, Dana Gardner, Principal Analyst at Interarbor Solutions.
Here are some excerpts:
Gardner: People are familiar with your brand, but they might not be familiar with your global breadth. Tell us a little bit about the company, so we appreciate the task ahead of you as IT practitioners.
Pickett: Columbia Sportswear is in its 75th year. We’re a leader in global manufacturing of apparel, outdoor accessories, and equipment. We’re distributed worldwide and we have infrastructure in 46 locations around the world that we manage today. We’re very happy to say that we’re 100 percent virtualized on VMware products.
Gardner: And those 46 locations, those aren’t your retail outlets. That’s just the infrastructure that supports your retail. Is that correct?
Pickett: Exactly, our retail footprint in North America is around 110 retail stores today. We’re looking to expand that with our joint venture in China over the next few years with Swire, distributor of Columbia Sportswear products.
Gardner: You’re clearly a fast-growing organization, and retail itself is a fast-changing industry. There’s lots going on, lots of data to crunch — gaining more inference about buyer preferences — and bringing that back into a feedback loop. It’s a very exciting time.
Tell me about the business requirements that you’ve had that have led you to reinvest and re-energize IT. What are the business issues that are behind that?
Pickett: Columbia Sportswear has been going through a global business transformation. We’ve been refreshing our enterprise resource planning (ERP). We had a green-field implementation of SAP. We just went live with North America in April of this year, and it was a very successful go-live. We’re 100 percent virtualized on VMware products and we’re looking to expand that into Asia and Europe as well.
So, with our global business transformation, also comes our consumer experience, on the retail side as well as wholesale. IT is looking to deliver service to the business, so they can become more agile and focused on engineering better products and better design and get that out to the consumer.
Gardner: To be clear, your retail efforts are not just brick and mortar. You’re also doing it online and perhaps even now extending into the mobile tier. Any business requirements there that have changed your challenges?
Pickett: Absolutely. We’re really pleased to announce, as of summer 2014, that Columbia Sportswear is an AirWatch customer as well. So we get to expand our end-user computing and our VMWare Horizon footprint as well as some of our SDDC strategies.
We’re looking at expanding not only our e-commerce and brick-and-mortar, but being able to deliver more mobile platform-agnostic solutions for Columbia Sportswear, and extend that out to not only Columbia employees, but our consumer experience.
Gardner: Let’s hear from Tim about your data center requirements. How does what Suzan told us about your business challenges translate into IT challenges?
Melvin: With our business changing and growing as quickly as it is, and with us doing business and selling directly to consumers in more than 100 countries around the world, our data centers have to be adaptable. Our data and our applications have to be secure and available, no matter where we are in the world, whether you’re on network or off-premises.
The SDDC has been a game-changer for us. It’s allowed to take those technologies, host them where we need them, and with whatever cost configuration makes sense, whether it’s in the cloud or on-premises, and deliver the solutions that our business needs.
Gardner: Let’s do a quick fact-check in terms of where you are in this journey to SDDC. It includes a lot. There are management aspects, network aspects, software-defined storage, and then of course mobile. Does anybody want to give me the report card on where you are in terms of this journey?
100 percent virtualized
Pickett: We’re 100 percent virtualized with our compute workloads today. We also have our storage well-defined with virtualized storage. We’re working on an early adoption proof of concept (POC) with VMware’s NSX for software-defined networking.
It really fills our next step into defining our SDDC, being able to leverage all of our virtual workloads, being able to extend that into the vCloud Air hybrid cloud, and being able to burst our workloads to expand our data centers our toolsets. So we’re looking forward to our next step of our journey, which is software-defined networking via NSX.
Gardner: Taking that network plunge, what about the public-cloud options for your hybrid cloud? Do you use multiple public clouds, and what’s behind your choice on which public clouds to use?
Melvin: When you look at infrastructure and the choice between on-premise solutions, hybrid clouds, public and private clouds, I don’t think it’s a choice necessarily of which answer you choose. There isn’t one right answer. What’s important for infrastructure professionals is to understand the whole portfolio and understand where to apply your high-power, on-premises equipment and where to use your lower-cost public cloud, because there are trade-offs in each case.
When we look at our workloads, we try to present the correct tool for the correct job. For instance, for our completely virtualized SAP environment we run that on internal, on-premises equipment. We start to talk about development in a sandbox, and those cases are probably best served in a public cloud, as long as we can secure and automate, just like we can on-site.
Gardner: As you’re progressing through SDDC and you’re exploring these different options and what works best both technically and economically in a hybrid cloud environment, what are you doing in terms of your data lifecycle. Is there a disaster recovery (DR) element to this? Are you doing warehousing in a different way and disturbing that, or are you centralizing it? I know that analysis of data is super important for retail organizations. Any thoughts about that data component on this overall architecture?
Pickett: Data is really becoming a primary concern for Columbia Sportswear, especially as we get into more analytical situations. Today, we have our two primary data centers in North America, which we do protect with VMWare’s vCenter Site Recovery Manager (SRM), a very robust DR solution.
We’re very excited to work with an enterprise-class cloud like vCloud Air that has not only the services that we need to host our systems, but also DR as a service, which we’re very interested in pursuing, especially around our remote branch office scenarios. In some of those remote countries, we don’t have that protection today, and it will give a little more business continuity or disaster avoidance, as needed.
As we look at data in our data centers, our primary data centers with big data, if you will, and/or enterprise data warehouse strategies, we’ve started looking at how we’re replicating the data where that data lives. We’ve started getting into active data center scenarios — active, active.
We’re really excited around some of the announcements we’ve heard recently at VMworld around virtual volumes (VVOLs) and where that’s going to take us in the next couple of years, specifically around vMotion over long-distance. Hopefully, we’ll follow the sun, and maybe five years from now, we’ll able to move our workloads from North America to Asia and be able to take those workloads and have them follow where the people are using them.
Gardner: That’s really interesting about that geographic element if you’re a global company. I haven’t heard that from too many other organizations. That’s an interesting concept about moving data and workloads around the world throughout the day.
We’ve seen some recent VMware news around different types of cloud data offerings, Cloud Object Store for example, and moving to a virtual private cloud on demand. Where do you see the next challenge is in terms of your organization and how do you feel that VMware is setting a goal post for you?
Tronco: The vCloud Air offerings that we’ve heard so much about are an exciting innovation.
Public clouds have been available for a long time. There are a lot of places where they make sense, but vCloud Air, being an enterprise-class offering, gives us the management capability and allows us to use the same tools that we would use on-site.
It gives us the control that we need in order to provide a consistent experience to our end-users. I think there is a lot of power there, a lot of capability, and I’m really excited to see where that goes.
Gardner: How about some of the automation issues with the vRealize Suite, such Air Automation. Where do you see the component of managing all this? It becomes more complex when you go hybrid. It becomes, in one sense, more standardized and automated when you go software-defined, but you also have to have your hands on the dials and be able to move things.
Tronco: One of the things that we really like about vCloud Air is the fact that we’ll be able to use the same tools on-premises and off-premises, and won’t have to switch between tools or dashboards. We can manage that infrastructure, whether it’s on-premise or in the public cloud, will be able to leverage the efficiencies we have on-premise in vCloud Air as well.
We also can take advantage of some of those new services, like ObjectStore, that might be coming down the road, or even continuous integration (CI) as a service for some of our development teams as we start to get more into a DevOps world.
Gardner: Let’s tie this back to the business. It’s one thing to have a smooth-running, agile IT infrastructure machine. It’s great to have an architecture that you feel is ready to take on your tasks, but how do you translate that back to the business? What does it get for you in business terms, and how are you seeing reactions from your business customers?
Pickett: We’re really excited to be partnering with the business today. As IT comes out from underground a little bit and starts working more with the business and understanding their requirements — especially with tools like VMware vRealize Automation, part of the vCloud Suite — we’re now partnering with our development teams to become more agile and help them deliver faster services to the business.
We’re working on one of our e-commerce order confirmation toolsets with vRealize Automation, part of the vCloud Suite, and their ability to now package and replicate the work that they’re doing rather than reinventing the wheel every time we build out an environment or they need to do a test or a development script.
By partnering with them and enabling them to be more agile, IT wins. We become more services-oriented. Our development teams are winning, because they’re delivering faster to the business and the business wins, because now they’re able to focus more on the core strategies for Columbia Sportswear.
Gardner: Do you have any examples that you can point to where there’s been a time-to-market benefit, a time-to-value faster upgrade of an application, or even a data service that illustrates what you’ve been able to deliver as a result of your modernization?
Pickett: Just going back to the toolset that I just mentioned. That was an upgrade process, and we took that opportunity to sit down with our development team and start socializing some of the ideas around VMware vRealize Automation and vCloud Air and being able to extend some of our services to them.
At the same time, our e-commerce teams are going through an upgrade process. So rather than taking weeks or months to deliver this technology to them, we were able to sit down, start working through the process, automate some of those services that they’re doing, and start delivering. So, we started with development, worked through the process, and now we have quality assurance and staging and we’re delivering product. All this is happening within a week.
So we’re really delivering and we’re being more agile and more flexible. That’s a very good use case for us internally from an IT standpoint. It’s a big win for us, and now we’re going to take it the next time we go through an upgrade process.
We’ve had this big win and now we’re going to be looking at other technologies — Java, .NET, or other solutions — so that we can deliver and continue the success story that we’re having with the business. This is the start of something pretty amazing, bringing development and infrastructure together and mobilizing what Columbia Sportswear is doing internally.
Gardner: Of course, we call it SDDC, but it leads to a much more comprehensive integrated IT function, as you say, extending from development, test, build, operations, cloud, and then sourcing things as required for a data warehouse and applications sets. So finally, in IT, after 30 or 40 years, we really have a unified vision, if you will.
Any thoughts, Tim, on where that unification will lead to even more benefits? Are there ancillary benefits from a virtuous adoption cycle that come to mind from that more holistic whole-greater-than-the-sum-of-the-parts IT approach?
Flexibility and power
Melvin: The closer we get to a complete software-defined infrastructure, the more flexibility and power we have to remove the manual components, the things that we all do a little differently and we can’t do consistently.
We have a chance to automate more. We have the chance to provide integrations into other tools, which is actually a big part of why we chose VMware as our platform. They allow such open integration with partners that, as we start to move our workloads more actively into the cloud, we know that we won’t get stuck with a particular product or a particular configuration.
The openness will allow us to adapt and change, and that’s just something you don’t get with hardware. If it’s software-defined, it means that you can control it and you can morph your infrastructure in order to meet your needs, rather than needing to re-buy every time something changes with the business.
Gardner: Of course, we think about not just technology, but people and process. How has all of this impacted your internal IT organization? Are you, in effect, moving people around, changing organizational charts, perhaps getting people doing things that they enjoy more than those manual tasks? Carlos, any thought about the internal impact of this on your human resources issues?
Tronco: Organizationally, we haven’t changed much, but the use of some thing like vRealize Automation allows us to let development teams do some of those tasks that they used to require us to do.
Now, we can do it in an automated fashion. We get consistency. We get the security that we need. We get the audit trail. But we don’t have to have somebody around on a Saturday for two minutes of work spread across eight hours. It also lets those application teams be more agile and do things when they’re ready to do them.
Having that time free lets us do a better job with engineering, look down the road better with a little more clarity, maybe try some other things, and have more time to look at different options for the next thing down the road.
Melvin: Another point there is that, in a fully software-defined infrastructure, while it may not directly translate into organizational changes, it allows you to break down silos. Today, we have operations, system storage, and database teams working together on a common platform that they’re all familiar with and they all understand.
We can all leverage the tools and configurations. That’s really powerful. When you don’t have the network guys sitting off doing things different from what the server guys are doing, you can focus more on comprehensive solutions, and that extends right into the development space, as Carlos mentioned. The next step is to work just as closely with our developers as we do with our peers and infrastructure.
Gardner: It sounds as if you’re now also in a position to be more fleet. We all have higher expectations as consumers. When I go to a website or use an application, I expect that I’ll see the product that I want, that I can order it, that it gets paid for, and then track it. There is a higher expectation from consumers now.
Is that part of your business payback that you tie into IT? Is there some way that we can define the relationship between that user experience for speed and what you’re able to do from a software-defined perspective?
Preventing ‘black ops’
Pickett: As an internal service provider for Columbia Sportswear, we can do it better, faster, and cheaper on-premise and with our toolsets from our partners at VMware. This helps prevent black ops situations, for example, where someone is going out to another cloud provider outside the parameters and guidelines from IT.
Today, we’re partnering with the business. We’re delivering that service. We’re doing it at the speed of thought. We’re not in a position where we’re saying “no,” “not yet,” or “maybe in a couple of weeks,” but “Yes, we can do that for you.” So it’s a very exciting position to be in that if someone comes to us or if we’re reaching out, having conversations about tools, features, or functionality, we’re getting a lot of momentum around utilizing those toolsets and then being able to expand our services to the business.
Tronco: Using those tools also allows us to turn around things faster within our development teams, to iterate faster, or to try and experiment on things without a lot of work on our part. They can try some of it, and if it doesn’t work, they can just tear it down.
Gardner: So you’ve gone through this journey and you’re going to be plunging in deeper with software-defined networking. You have some early-adopter chops here. You guys have been bold and brave.
What advice might you offer to some other organizations that are looking at their data-center architecture and strategy, thinking about the benefits of hybrid cloud, software-defined, and maybe trying to figure out in which order to go about it?
Pickett: I’d recommend that, if you haven’t virtualized your workloads — to get them virtualized. We’re in that no-limit situation. There are no longer restrictions or boundaries around virtualizing your mission-critical or your tier-one workloads. Get it done, so you can start leveraging the portability and the flexibility of that.
Start looking at the next steps, which will be automation, orchestration, provisioning, service catalogs, and extending that into a hybrid-cloud situation, so that you can focus more on what your core offerings are going to be your core strategies. And not necessarily offload, but take advantage of some of those capabilities that you can get in VMware vCloud Air for example, so that you can focus on really more of what’s core to your business.
Gardner: Tim, any words of advice from your perspective?
Melvin: When it comes to solutions in IT, the important thing is to find the value and tie it back to the business. So look for those problems that your business has today, whether it’s reducing capital expense through heavy virtualization, whether it’s improving security within the data center through NSX and micro-segmentation, or whether it’s just providing more flexible infrastructure for your temporary environments like SAN and software development through the cloud.
Find those opportunities and tie it back to a value that the business understands. It’s important to do something with software-defined data centers. It’s not a trend and it’s not really even a question anymore. It’s where we’re going. So get moving down that path in whatever way you need to in order to get started. And find those partners, like VMware, that will support you and build those relationships and just get moving.
Gardner: Carlos, advice, thoughts about 20/20 hindsight?
Tronco: As Suzan said, it’s focusing on virtualizing the workloads and then being able to leverage some of those other tools like vRealize Automation. Then you’re able to free staff up to pursue activities and add more value to the environment and the business, because you’re not doing repeatable things manually. You’ll get more consistency now that people have time. They’re not down because they’re doing all these day two, day three operations and things that wear and grate on you.
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