Freight and logistics company Stobart Group – best known for its Eddie Stobart haulage business – has grown rapidly during the past few years, with its revenue rising from £170m in fiscal 2007 to £450m in 2009.
Its growth has, in part, been fuelled by a flurry of acquisitions, including the purchases of James Irlam, O’Connor Group, and Innovate Logistics – the latter of which added 300 users to Stobart’s increasingly sprawling IT infrastructure.
The company now has around 1,500 computer users working in 60 locations ranging from offices and traditional warehouses to container ports and non-airside airport freight operations at Southend and Carlisle airports.
IT director Vince Sparks joined the company early in 2008 and was charged with making sense of the various technology elements underpinning the expanding organisation.
“What you had was a lot of disparate pieces of IT infrastructure and my view was that the business required one set of infrastructure and, where relevant, one set of core applications,” Sparks told silicon.com.
The company embarked on a plan to centralise its IT infrastructure. The project, however, wasn’t only about dealing with the increasing complexity of the infrastructure itself but also changing the company’s whole approach to IT.
“For us it’s moving from the smaller business IT into enterprise class IT where you have standards and a model and approach and preferred suppliers and your preferred technologies and your strategy.
“We’re building a foundation layer of IT which is common for Stobart Group and dispensing with all the localised IT which existed with the legacy companies,” Sparks said.
From August to October 2009, Stobart Group’s tech team migrated much of its business information to a central datacentre in Birmingham, operated by IT services company SCC.
As a result of the migration, the whole company is now running on one email system – Microsoft Exchange 2007, upgraded from Exchange 2003 – and is in the process of switching off its legacy email systems.
Stobart Group is also making increased use of de-duplication tech. It has added Symantec Enterprise Vault for storage and data de-duplication to its email set-up, while its datacentre runs NetApp filer technology, which uses de-duplication to reduce the company’s overall storage requirements.
As well as cutting storage, the datacentre project will also have an impact on the running costs and environmental impact of the company’s IT. Once the move to the central datacentre has been completed in around three months’ time, the company will have halved the number of physical servers in its infrastructure to around 50.
The use of VMWare virtualisation technology in the centralised datacentre has been a major factor in the reduction: although the datacentre will include 17 new physical servers, there will be more than 40 virtual machines running in the facility.
In addition, the company will avoid installing servers at smaller regional sites in the future unless there is a specific need to – such as where applications have performance issues when working over a WAN or if they are unable to be virtualised using VMWare within the datacentre.
Alongside the datacentre project, the company decided to boost the efficiency of its WAN, which was coming under increasing pressure when transmitting data between the Stobart Group’s numerous locations.
Microsoft Office applications in particular were not really tuned to operate across the WAN, taking far too much time to complete tasks, according to Sparks.
Initially the IT department considered throwing additional bandwidth at the WAN but…
…soon realised it wasn’t the right approach. Due to fact the performance issues were partly caused by applications that created a lot of data that didn’t need to be transmitted, rather than bandwidth limitations.
The company therefore decided to make the network more effective through WAN optimisation technology.
Following a successful trial with Riverbed in April 2009, Stobart Group has now installed the company’s Steelhead appliances in its central datacentre as well as 14 other locations across the network.
By caching data and eliminating certain types of data traffic the Riverbed technology reduced data volume across the Stobart Group network by two-thirds.
Consequently, the company found that applications accessing data via the WAN, such as Excel and Word, ran more efficiently with much-reduced latency. Opening a 30MB Excel spreadsheet over the WAN used to take 45 minutes, for example – it now takes three minutes. As a result of these changes, users are more productive, spending less time waiting for tasks to be completed.
Improving the WAN is not the only communications challenge for Stobart Group’s IT department: when the company wins new business, Sparks and his team must spring into action and install the necessary comms infrastructure at speed.
“I think the biggest challenge working in logistics, and specifically with Stobart Group, is the reaction time in order to meet customer demands. We deal with a lot of blue chip customers – so we’re talking Nestle, Coca Cola, Johnson & Johnson, Tesco – and quite often new business wins in a particular area geographically can happen quite quickly and we have to set up operations, sometimes within two weeks.”
As the company may be asked to take over the running of a customer’s warehouse in a timeframe that would mean setting up the standard comms links would be impossible, a staged comms rollout is carried out instead.
The IT team will set up a broadband VPN arrangement to get things up and running before installing an MPLS link in the following months. In some cases, 3G forms the initial comms deployment if signal strength in the area is good and a VPN is difficult to put in place.
According to Sparks, the Stobart Group’s new technology model should make it easier to take on new business.
With data and applications running out of a central location, new locations can be set up with improved WAN access and with less need to install heavyweight hardware.
Once the centralisation of the company’s IT has been completed, Sparks said his team will start to look at ways in which they can develop services to take advantage of it.
One of the first projects is likely to be around desktop virtualisation. The company is planning to investigate the technology towards the end of the year, with the use of Citrix VDI software to deliver software to thin clients a likely approach.
Cloud computing is another area that Sparks is keeping an eye on.
“We’ve looked at it but it’s not part of a committed strategy to go to cloud computing per se,” he told silicon.com.
He added: “We look at [external cloud] on a case-by-case basis. I think if you’ve invested in your own infrastructure and have a large storage capacity then you would put it in your own environment and control it yourself, but I think it’s quite tempting… sometimes [to use external cloud technology] for a quick a start up.”