Corporate Express virtualises workers’ skills on the road to 100% virtualisation

The IT leader at office supplies company Corporate Express is shooting for 100% virtualisation of the company's systems, and has changed the way he manages the IT team to achieve the goal.

Office supplies company Corporate Express is trying to get to 100% virtualised systems, and has radically altered the way it skills and manages staff to get there.

The company’s small IT team comprises just ten workers, but was siloed into specialist roles with individuals responsible for storage, networking and other tasks. That arrangement, Infrastructure and Operations Centre Manager Andrew Grech told a press lunch in Sydney today, meant that individual staff members could become bottlenecks as the team waited for an expert to perform a task no-one else knew how to undertake.

The introduction of virtualisation, a technology the company has employed since 2004, made it apparent that this approach was not sustainable. The organisation has therefore worked to multi-skill its IT team, as “once we started to merge our IT, we started to merge jobs as well,” Grech said,

The “merging” of jobs has generally been well-received, he said, with employees feeling they now have new opportunities that were not available when they worked as specialist. Fortnightly assessments and goal-setting meetings have also become part of the company’s regime.

The new HR agenda has come alongside adoption of EMC storage, Cisco networks and VMware as part of a virtualisation push. While this trio of vendors operates as the “VCE alliance” and publishes reference architectures called 'Vblocks' for its products, Corporate Express has not followed this lead, in part because its selection of the three pre-dated the alliance’s formation.

Grech is nonetheless working towards achieving V-Block certification, with a new SAN purchase on his radar to increase input/output speed ahead of a planned SAP rollout. That rollout may see the application moved from its current IBM Power platform to x86 servers, a move Corporate Express is eyeing off as part of an ambition to achieve 100% virtualisation and further increase its business agility.

For now, the company is content with the outcomes enabled by 84% virtualisation and says this is meeting users’ demands for rapid deployment of new servers and applications. A member of Grech’s team, Chad Singleton, said users inside the company spur it on, as they often ask for new servers and mention that they could provision one from a public cloud provider for a handful of dollars and in a very short time.

Singleton and Grech retort with confidence the IT team can match the speed and cost of a public cloud provider.

“Every project we run considers outsourcing to the cloud as an option,” Grech says. “To date it has always been cheaper to do it in house.”

Another benefit of the company’s march to virtualisation, Grech says, is that is has given IT a powerful voice in the company’s Corporate Social Responsibility program, as he can point to considerable savings in carbon emissions and energy consumption. Server consolidation means he can point to a greatly reduced fleet – 38 servers disappeared this year alone – and new Cisco UCS equipment that arrived last month shows how the company can avoid extra investment in data centre space.

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