Transforming IT Infrastructure to Enhance Customer Service

Steven John, CIO, AmeriPride
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Steven John, CIO, AmeriPride

AmeriPride Services is a leading uniform rental and linen supply company in North America that provides linen, uniforms, floor care, restroom and cleaning products to nearly 150,000 customers each week and employs approximately 5,700. Founded in 1889, the company pioneered the industry and now operates more than 115 production facilities and service centers throughout the United States and Canada.

So how does a 125-year-old company stay relevant? The answer is to adapt and change and be ever responsive to its customers’ needs. AmeriPride maintains its competitive edge by staying close to its customers, including adopting the digital and mobile communications technologies that its customers want.

“Onsite collaboration with HP has allowed us to apply best practices in technology migrations and ensure that our converged environment runs efficiently”

The textile rental business is personal. Our delivery drivers know their customers by name, and the company has built a powerful brand through its commitment to exceptional service and quality, and being people you can count on. But the world is changing, and customers also want to interact with AmeriPride online through digital and mobile technologies.

New technologies also provide benefits to employees and the company. Timely and accurate data helps the company to provide the best possible service to its customers and allows the company to be more efficient. And in many cases we are providing ‘better customer service through self service.’

As customer demographics changed, we knew we had to adjust our business model. Customers today want account information instantly, at their fingertips, through whatever channel they choose. Instead of a personal meeting once a week, we have to provide 24x7 digital access. And to offer that up, we had to change our technology platform.

Before embarking on a major IT transformation in 2007, our data storage was distributed across 45 plants, each with a server closet or corner of office space. We had aging servers of various makes and models, and we were running out of floor space, as well as heating and cooling capacity. To gain much needed platform agility, we transformed our IT environment using leading-edge data center technologies and services.

“We set out to virtualize, standardize, consolidate and centralize our data center environment,” said Jeff Baken, AmeriPride’s Data Center Manager. “HP’s new blade technology caught our attention and we realized very quickly that in order to navigate through the numerous options, we needed to partner with someone that had expertise with the solutions available and the technologies we planned to implement.”

We partnered with Works Computing, a solutions provider that had knowledgeable and experienced staff, a solid track record and was the right size for their organization. After testing HP blades, we acquired two HP BladeSystem enclosures.

Today we run all of our 45 branches on six enclosures in our Minnetonka, Minn. data center, with backup data storage and colocation at a SunGard facility in Chicago. Our environment is 90 percent virtualized on VMware, with business applications running either on Red Hat Linux or Microsoft Windows.

The HP server blades offer interoperability between operating systems and the architecture we established in 2007 has provided a foundation for continual IT transformation. As the technology advances, we can upgrade in a modular fashion without starting over from scratch, and our existing platform investments deliver ongoing value.

The blade environment also provides flexibility. We can add and integrate servers quickly. And we’ll be able to reuse everything we’ve built in support of the current architecture. As technology evolves, we won’t have to re-architect everything. The environment and the procedures for maintaining our infrastructure remain constant, which saves us time and money.

The new system also provides added flexibility and security. “We started with the first generation of HP ProLiant blades and we’ve now deployed the latest generation of HP ProLiant blades,” he said. “The blades are highly intelligent and monitor for problems. So now, instead of being reactive to problems, we can be proactive and prevent problems from occurring.”

“AmeriPride relied on the HP Enterprise Virtual Array for storage for four years, and in all that time we did not experience a single outage,” said Baken. “We have since migrated to HP 3PAR Storage, with a primary storage area network in Minnetonka and a secondary one in Chicago for disaster recovery. It also uses HP StoreOnceBackup Appliance for local recovery, so if someone accidentally deletes an important document, they can recover it quickly and not have to go to a tape backup.”

The HP 3PAR solution also provides clear visibility into our data and performance. The storage solution is designed for cloud processing, and while we don’t use multi-tenancy, we do employ cloud disciplines of automation, monitoring, templating, quick delivery and directing multiple workloads. We use HP management for VMware vCenter Server for centralized server management and lifecycle control.

The system also allows us to better manage network traffic coming out of the servers. We can carve up the 10-gig connection any way we see fit through commands versus physical connections. If one application has high demand, we can dynamically move more bandwidth to that server. It really takes virtualization to another level.

Onsite collaboration with HP has allowed us to apply best practices in technology migrations and ensure our converged environment runs efficiently. And having the virtual infrastructure run on HP ProLiant Server Blades also enables us to deliver strategic value to the company’s business units.

We can provision virtual environments for proof of concept tests within minutes. Instead of spending a month acquiring and preparing specialized physical hardware that may not be able to be repurposed once the project is done, we can dynamically repurpose our resources, saving time and money. This allows us to innovate on the ‘fast to fail’ concept, trying out ideas and bringing them quickly to market, or changing our approach if the idea doesn’t pan out. In line with this, we are also developing new web and mobile applications to bring us closer to our customers.

And faster provisioning is just one of the metrics we track. AmeriPride’s data center footprint is down 30 percent and server instance has grown by 20 percent. And our energy load has decreased from 73 to 43 percent.

“AmeriPride currently has more server power in less space, using less energy, all while increasing our competitive agility,” said Baken. “We went from twice daily outages six years ago to virtually zero downtime, with automated failover of core applications such as the Absolute Business Systems ERP system. A recent test of the new HP 3PAR system aced our RTO (Recovery Time Objectives).”

AmeriPride almost exclusively uses HP desktop PCs and is also piloting HP ElitePads to give its sales force and mobile workers touch capabilities in a Windows environment.

We are also looking into HP’s high density server technology to address challenges posed by social, mobile, cloud, and big data applications — all technologies AmeriPride wants to leverage. We’re looking into emerging technologies and asking ourselves what kind of value we can derive from them, how can we leverage our existing platform, and how can we integrate those technologies to meet and anticipate our growing customer demands.

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