CASE STUDY: NZ fruit distributor freshens up with Linux

T&G made the move to Suse Linux and IBM's DB2, while converting to Unicode, inside a short timeframe, but have no regrets to date.

Turners and Growers (T&G), one of NZ’s leading distributor, marketer and exporter of premium fresh produce, has a history that stretches back up to 1897.

T&G, whose majority stakeholder is German agricultural giant BayWa, has a network of over 41,000 square metres of storage facilities, a global distribution network covering sales, marketing, and logistics, and a passionate, experienced team, who are intent on ensuring that the produce that customers receive, are as fresh as the day it was harvested.

And they need the best in IT systems to support that goal.

“The IT investments of the firm are tied to the strategy of the company, which is to deliver freshness everyday, everywhere. Our systems have to be really fast and effective to ensure that. Our products are perishable, and you can’t be late even by a little bit. Our systems have to be extremely fast and efficient,” says Rodolfo Gandionco, IS operations manager at T&G.

T&G has traditionally been an SAP-shop.

“SAP is our main core application for the business. We are running quite a few modules including for finance, sales and distribution, process integration, BI, HCM and Portal solution manager. We have been running SAP for many years now.

“We have run SAP on Windows servers, with Oracle DB for information. We are also 99% virtualised. We have been running the whole SAP environment on VMWare,” says Gandionco.

Over the years though, the firm had some challenges with the environment that were recurring.

“One of the biggest challenge is our very high maintenance and licencing costs. At the same time, there was our performance. Though there weren’t any issues, we knew that there was room for improvement. There was also the ongoing security and patches with relation to the Windows servers. All these were challenges in the environment,” says Gandionco.

On discussing the IT environment with BayWa, the 30-member IT team started considering the possibility of moving the SAP environment to a combination of SUSE Linux Enterprise Server and IBM’s DB2.

“The main reason we chose SUSE Linux was because it is tightly integrated with SAP. We believe this integration would help deliver better performance and efficiencies, especially with larger workloads. We chose the SUSE Linux Enterprise Server version that was specially designed for SAP. With that the OS, the kernel, the binaries and the packages are all certified, tested, validated and optimised for SAP,” says Gandionco.

T&G also decided to complete Unicode conversion at the same time as the move.

“We were putting this off for a while. Unicode conversion is a huge project. So what we decided was that instead of doing exactly doing the same thing with the same resources and time at a later point, we decided to do it all at the same time,” says Gandionco.

Carrying out the task

T&G decided on the move to SUSE Linux in May last year. It knew that it would take two or three days of downtime for the business, and after consideration, decided to make the move over the Labour weekend in October 2013.

“We knew it would be a tight schedule, but none of us really wanted to work over Christmas to make the move,” says Gandionco with a laugh.

“The schedule was like that because in order for us to take advantage of the licensing savings, the maintenance window, the cycle needs to start from January 2014. So we needed to finish the project before end of year, so we could achieve the savings that we were looking at,” he adds.

The company migrated its major systems onto a production schedule over the weekend.

“So there were around 35 database servers, plus app servers that we needed to migrate. It was relatively easy since we were virtualised. We also did rigorous testing to make sure we have mitigated risks,” says Gandionco.

Nevertheless, the deployment had some inherent challenges, besides the tight schedule within which the team was operating.

“Moving to a new OS, a new database and converting SAP to Unicode – all was done at the same time. By default it added 20 per cent to the workload. That was one of our concerns. Those were one of the challenges with implementation.

“And of course there are a lot of challenges in moving from Windows to Linux, especially since all my engineers were skilled in Windows and not Linux,” says Gandionco.

T&G relied on partners to help it through the transition. While it brought in some special SAP partners to support the application side, it relied on Enterprise IT’s expertise with the move to SUSE Linux.

“We got Enterprise IT in and made sure that the inhouse engineers worked with them. It became not just an implementation, but more of an on-the-job training together with them,” says Gandionco.

The company went live as scheduled. It now runs its SAP production environment on a cluster of four VMWare ESX server hosts, running virtualised instances of SUSE Linux Enterprise Server. This environment runs a total of 37 database instances, using VMWare High Availability and vCenter Site Recovery Manager for business continuity.

The IT team has received positive feedback from users on the system, according to Gandionco. It was also able to achieve the target savings on licences and maintenance.

A virtuous cycle

T&G continues to provide customised training to its engineers via Enterprise IT tailored to address their requirements within the available skill sets.

“At the same time we also got them to do online training on SUSE Linux. We enrolled them in that and got it to be a part of their KPIs. They are really keen on getting certification on SUSE Linux. We have got partners to come in and do regular health checks and updates, but day-to-day our engineers are doing what is expected,” says Gandionco.

The company has a co-location data centre in Auckland, and a disaster recovery site in Mount Wellington, with storage replication of every ten minutes.

In 2014, the IT team will look to collect and analyse data on the move to Linux to understand performance and effectiveness, according to Gandionco.

“We have been live for a few months now. We are getting some performance stats and reviewing and tweaking the system to get further performance out of it. We are also looking closely at using solution manager for enterprise priority support. With solutions manager we can have just one channel of support for issues with OS or SAP or DB2. That will help us streamline support.

“We are also looking into SUSE Linux Enterprise Server Manager, so that would take care of rapid patch management. We are looking at that. 40 or 50 virtual machines, it would be easier to manage patches with the server manager,” says Gandionco.

The company has an active CYOD policy, by which users can choose to bring in devices within a pre-selected range identified by the company, to use with work systems. T&G is also planning to go live with SAP’s HR system soon.

“We are looking to tap into and create more synergies with BayWa, even as we pursue of overall goal of delivering fresh produce to our customers,” concludes Gandionco.

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