Retail therapy

Advanced analytics underpinned by SUSE Linux are helping Lulu Group to move ahead in the competitive FMCG retail sector

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Retail therapy Rao: “Virtualising the applications on FlexFrame on SUSE would give us an advantage.”
By  David Ingham Published  May 29, 2016

Abu Dhabi-based Lulu Group operates a diverse business, spanning hypermarkets, shopping malls and food processing. As it has grown, its operations have spread out across many different countries and continents. Keen to gain rapid insight into performance, better serve customers and control costs, the retail group has placed in-memory analytics, cloud computing and mobile apps at the heart of its IT strategy.

Underpinning all of this is the retail group’s decision to deploy open source software, specifically SUSE Linux, at the core of its data centre. The group’s journey with SUSE began in 2009 when it took the decision to move away from Sun Solaris, a platform that the group had adopted in 2005 when it first deployed SAP business applications.

Over time, explains Madhav Rao, CIO of LuLu Group, the IT department had begun to question the long-term cost implications of staying with Sun’s and later Oracle’s Unix platform. “Looking at our TCO, we did not feel very comfortable in terms of total cost of ownership and we also wanted to virtualise the entire business applications stack,” he explains.

This latter requirement led the company towards a combination of SUSE Linux and Fujitsu’s FlexFrame, a solution designed to manage virtualisation of servers running SAP applications. The platform is designed for rapid implementation and supports on-demand provisioning.

“We wanted to use FlexFrame from Fujitsu. They have certification from SAP and their preferred operating system is SUSE,” explains Rao.

“We felt virtualising the applications on FlexFrame on SUSE would give us an advantage. It reduces the number of boxes and gives us on-demand provisioning.

“If line of business managers want to test something, earlier I would have to call my hardware vendor, test, then buy. All that is gone. Provisioning is now happening very fast.”

Rao himself was also familiar with SUSE through his earlier work with the Novell network operating system and directory. He had earlier been certified on Netware, the once-dominant network operating system owned by Novell. In 2003, Novell acquired SUSE (now owned by Micro Focus International) and made SUSE the migration path for customers running Netware.

By 2009, when the group initially deployed SUSE Linux, the operating system and Linux in general had also firmly established their enterprise credentials. “Linux has matured greatly,” Rao says.

“It was SAP certified back in 2005-6. It’s also about the overall comfort factor. It’s the hardware, OS and applications and whether or not it’s giving you the scalability and robustness. By 2009, it was present in many enterprises.”

After successfully deploying the platform at the core of its data centre, Lulu Group has now taken its embrace of SUSE Linux a step further. The group operates a diverse business, with several hundred thousand shoppers spending money in its nearly 125 outlets across many different countries every day. The implementation of SAP in-memory computing has allowed senior management to gain detailed insight into what is happening in each of these stores.

How much has been spent in a specific store that day, how many people have passed through the tills, even how much each customer has spent – management can see this information in near realtime thanks to in-memory computing.

The in-memory database works by keeping data in RAM, rather than having to extract it all from hard drives or flash drives. What this means, of course, is that the platform it’s sitting on must be highly stable and robust. Again, this is where SUSE came in.

“We knew that the relationship between SAP and SUSE is very close, and that SAP uses the SUSE operating system for its own development on Linux, so it seemed to be the best option,” says Shiju Shanmughan, network and infrastructure manager at LuLu Group.

“The deployment went very smoothly, and we handled it largely with our in-house team, using the excellent SUSE documentation. “Thanks to this complete, end-to-end workflow for the installation of SUSE Linux Enterprise Server for SAP Applications, our team was able to save valuable time throughout the implementation process—helping to ensure that we went live on time. We also support the OS in house, escalating any more complex queries to the experts on the SUSE support team.”

Key to the success of the earlier migration and the new deployment is testing, Madhav Rao explains. When the migration is done, the old system is switched off and the new one switched on, literally overnight.

Prior to that, however, extensive simulations are done in a test environment. Around two hundred users are involved in the tests, which include remote users in offices outside the main Abu Dhabi HQ and data centre.

Since SUSE and FlexFrame were installed, “we have not raised a single call,” says Rao. “If you look on the OS side, you will not have any problem with the OS unless you do your own testing on your production environment. Follow the best practices, what is prescribed by SUSE, do everything in tests, then you migrate to production.”

Lulu Group has also emerged as a pioneer in the deployment of public cloud services in the region. For the last two years, it has had around 4000 users using Office 365, including Outlook for e-mail.

The company made the move when it became dissatisfied with its previous mail platform, which had a client that Rao describes as “thick and very heavy”. Users were asking for something that looked more like Windows, which inevitably led Lulu Group in the direction of Outlook.

The group initially tried Outlook as its e-mail client, while retaining Domino at the back end. This created issues in terms of connectivity and authentication controls.

The IT department then began looking into Office 365. Lulu Group discovered that it could potentially satisfy its end users and gain an uptime guarantee from Microsoft.

“If you go with Outlook, you make users happy and if you put it in the cloud and get a four nines [99.99%] from Microsoft in terms of availability, why should I not look into that option?” says Rao. Regarding pricing, he says public cloud vendors are open to discussion and willing to make deals on price. “It’s how transparently you discuss it,” he says.

Lulu is now using the Microsoft cloud for office applications and e-mail, and is one of the largest users in the region. Servers are located in Europe and Rao describes the experience as “fantastic”.

Lulu Group has, however, taken what Rao calls a hybrid approach to the deployment. The process of user authentication via the active directory takes place in house on Lulu Group’s own servers and users are then directed to the Office 365 servers in the cloud.

“If you want to achieve single sign-on, you have directory authentication sitting in your data centre for all your users, and once the directory has authenticated you it gives you access to the cloud,” Rao explains. The authentication of users in offices outside the Abu Dhabi hub, such as Indonesia, takes place locally. This helps relieve demand on the servers in the main data centre in Abu Dhabi.

Personal computers in Lulu Group are protected with endpoint security and user profiles are created. A user cannot attempt to place detachable media in their PCs without the IT department becoming aware.

Lulu Group takes a similar approach to BYOD. Each user has a personal container and an office container. Management tools prevent any exchange of data between the two profiles and remote wipes can be performed by the IT department. “We also have an undertaking from our end users that they’re aware of this kind of policy,” explains Rao.

With a robust IT foundation in place, Lulu Group is now looking into the deployment of apps, both for internal and customer use. One idea is to equip sales assistants with devices that can access up-to-the-minute information on stock availability. These applications will be hosted in the HANA cloud and will connect to Lulu Group’s core ERP system for stock information.

Rao gives an example of a customer walking into a store and asking for a product. Rather than making the customer wait while he or she walks to the nearest terminal, the sales assistant can now access accurate SKU information from a handheld terminal. “He’s interacting with the customer through the HANA cloud platform application, connecting to our native ERP and retrieving the information on where our stock is available,” explains Rao.

A Lulu B2C mobile app designed for customers is in beta testing and scheduled for launch in June. The app will allow the customer to access SKU information and will include a loyalty offering. As with all its IT investments, deployment of the apps depends on management embracing the business case.

“We have to prove to the heads that there is value in it and then we go and experiment with it,” explains Rao. “If you don’t involve management, you lose something and it’s not accepted by the LOBs [line of business managers].

With its adoption of in-memory computing, the cloud and, soon, mobile apps, Lulu Group is now well into its journey of digital transformation. Underpinning it all is the robust SUSE Linux platform.

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