Unilever takes communication on to the web

Unilever is rolling out a web-based system to improve communication with customers, suppliers and internal departments.

Unilever is rolling out a web-based system to improve communication with customers, suppliers and internal departments.

The company is working with IBM on a multimillion-dollar platform that will pull together information from more than200 operating companies and provide a consistent interface for suppliers and customers.

Unilever is one of the world's largest consumer product companies, with sales of €48bn (US$56.4 billion) in 2002.

In 2000, Unilever realised that it had to get more effective at dealing with its trading partners. 

"We recognised that we had 200-odd operating companies, almost all of them connecting over VPNs to their customers. The problem was that they were all doing the same sort of things but with different Electronic Data Interchange systems and with the high costs of running all the VPNs. It was very complicated," said Chris Turner, vice president of applications architecture.

Unilever chose to work with IBM "because we felt they were a business who would be around long term", Turner said. He did not consider a system based on Microsoft's .net architecture because Unilever's infrastructure is driven by Java and J2EE, and he did not want to replace it all.

While the company did have to buy new hardware, "it was just a case of bigger servers, an extension of what we had before", he said.

The Unilever system is based on IBM's WebSphere Integration suite, with a global hub, or switch, based in North America, and five regional hubs, said Paul Gambrill, IBM's trading partner collaboration manager for Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA).

IBM used its WebSphere broker tool to pull together information from all the regional companies and communicate to the outside world through one central hub.

The integration tools in WebSphere allow the hub to deal with different communication protocols and with all the systems run by Unilever companies. "Unilever's made a lot of acquisitions, and they all run differently," Gambrill said.

Unilever will move towards using XML once XML standards are established, Gambrill said.

The system is now live in some parts of Unilever's business, mainly in North America, Turner said. "Lots of the EDI for our ice cream business and our catalogues is going through it. The things that were being used to test it are now going live," he said.

North America and Europe will be linked up first, Turner said, but it will be "quite a while" before Unilever gets all its suppliers linked up to the new IBM system.

Turner would not give a precise cost for the project but said he is not too concerned about the eventual price. "We have a deal with IBM, in that we buy a significant amount from them and so we have very favourable terms with them. I think we're protected against the infamous 'creep'," he said, referring to the tendency of prices to rise as an IT project continues.

Gillian Law writes for IDG News Service

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