It Takes a Quality IT Group to Deliver Good Yogurt

IT infrastructure and services are not the first things to come to mind when you think of Danone Group, the $3.5 billion company known for its Evian water and Dannon and Stonyfield yogurt brands. But when it comes to packaging and delivering water and yogurt, IT services and the automation they provide are indispensable.

"We can't deliver one ounce of yogurt or water unless there's some kind of technology involved, network or server or what have you," says Mike Close, North American CTO at the company. "It's really that automated."

In a presentation at the recent Network World IT Roadmap event in Boston, and in follow-up interviews, Close explained that IT was becoming a bottleneck at Danone, especially because its various subsidiaries all had their own IT departments, with separate staffing and infrastructure.

"All of the sites had different systems," he says. "They used different networks, they didn't have the same antivirus software, the same monitoring tools, not even the same operating systems in some cases."

Homogenizing IT

In an effort to cut costs and increase efficiencies, Danone decided to standardize on Cisco networking gear and centralize its IT services, closing data centers in Montreal and White Plains, N.Y., and building one main data center in Manchester, N.H. Close says the idea was to reduce staffing while improving the overall level of service.

For example, five sites that previously had their own IT groups each needed a database expert. "Our idea was that if we centralized IT, we'd have a primary database engineer and then a backup engineer handling all five sites," Close says. "We'd have better service, since everyone had a backup, and we'd still have a net savings of three engineers."

While the company retained some of its original staff, it ended up hiring most from scratch. Close says this was primarily because the current staff either did not have the requisite skill set -- for example, they were Novell engineers, but Danone no longer had Novell in place -- or were unwilling to relocate to New Hampshire. "We probably kept three or four people who decided to move up here," he says. "The rest transitioned off in about a 12-month period."

And that left Close with a daunting hiring task. He decided to concentrate on hiring what he terms "business technologists," or staffers with not only the requisite technical skills, but also strong customer service and business acumen. Working together with a full-time human resources staffer, Close was able to staff up successfully. "We're about a year and two months into this, and we have everyone still on board, except one administrative assistant," he says. "It worked out well."

With staff in place, the next step was standardizing and stabilizing IT operations. The idea was to reduce the number of diverse systems in place by consolidating data centers, employing virtualization technology and standardizing services. That, in turn, would reduce support requirements. "There's no way to support six different sites if they all have different types of equipment in them," Close says. "You'd need the same number of people as you had before because of all the individual expertise you'd need."

The plan also stipulated replacing risky infrastructure. "We focused on making sure the hardware in the network was stable, and we got rid of things that had chronic problems," Close says. "If we had an organization where the file server was down every day, we'd say hey, that's it. We're putting a new file server in here and just drop one in."

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