Partner Insights

Softcat: Smart Infrastructure Management Drives Dynamic Retail

Efficient capacity management, responsive issue resolution, and unified visibility are key to Central England Co-operative’s success, says Phil Morley.

Central England Co-operative is one of the largest co-operatives in the UK. Aligned with, but independent of, the Co-operative Group, it is a £1 billion business spanning grocery, retail, and funeral services.

However, it is most known, essentially, as a convenience store business, an operator of local shops. The organization has around 390 food, retail, and funeral outlets across central England. These stores are a vital part of the local community.

Technology will play an important role in ensuring these stores continue to thrive.

As a business, Central England Co-op is currently exploring ways to make its stores more efficient and more convenient. It is testing an app that will allow customers to scan their shopping and walk out the door – with the payments automatically deducted from their account. It is also looking at payments via cryptocurrency or local deliveries made via electric vehicles.

All of this requires robust application development and testing, and a sound infrastructure layer.

VMware vRealize® Operations Manager™, working in tandem with VMware Tanzu™ Observability, is essential in enabling the co-operative to monitor and manage its infrastructure and applications.

Taking back control of infrastructure and applications

This was not always the case. Not so long ago, the society had an arrangement with a service provider to manage its infrastructure. As Phil Morley, Infrastructure Architect at Central England Co-op, explains: “Despite our best efforts we never got this service working. We’d arrive in the morning to find hosts had gone down, or there were unexpected capacity issues.”

“We knew we needed to take control of this. We needed to establish better visibility, and, despite being a £1bn business, we needed it in a way that could be handled by an infrastructure team of just two.”

Morley had recently seen a demo of vRealize Operations Manager at VMworld Europe, which he had attended in partnership with Central England Co-op’s long-term IT service provider and VMware Principal Partner, Softcat.

“One thing I like about Softcat is they’ve never tried to sell us something we don’t need. I was immediately struck by how VMware vRealize Operations Manager could help our capacity management,” comments Morley.

The society was about to embark on a colocation center project as part of a larger move towards software-as-a-service (SaaS) solutions. It recognized that vRealize Operations Manager would provide visibility into its private cloud environment, including VMs and containers, along with the applications supported. The features were exactly what it needed: continuous performance optimization, efficient capacity, cost planning and management, app-aware intelligent remediation, and integrated compliance.

VMware Tanzu Observability provides application layer observability, which the business is using to get insight into the performance of some of its most vital systems, such as its time and financial management apps. The infrastructure team can then use this increased visibility to identify and detect problems before they escalate.

“If there’s a problem with application performance there’s usually a problem with the infrastructure – until we’ve proved otherwise,” says Morley.

Removing the noise and focusing attention

Today, clearer visibility enables Central England Co-op to be far stronger in its infrastructure management – infrastructure that supports business-critical applications across the company. It has created alerts, linked to a Microsoft Teams channel, that warn the IT team of the most pressing issues.

“VMware vRealize Operations Manager and VMware Tanzu Observability have helped strengthen our in-house expertise, but we know we can do more. This is just the beginning, we want to increase reporting and create new dashboards as part of our drive to be more proactive,” explains Morley.

Increased infrastructure visibility has provided the team with multiple benefits. The easy creation of new custom dashboards using Tanzu Observability, in particular, has proved really popular with the society’s developer teams. The team also has more insight into old, legacy infrastructure that is no longer being used and can shut it down accordingly, which has a significant cost impact.

Uptime has also improved across the organization, as the team can better manage upgrades without the risk of overwhelming its CPU space. It can manage remote desktops as well as critical retail applications. “Downtime would have a significant impact on our business and our users. We now have clear dashboards on all these applications,” says Morley.

Finally, Central England Co-op’s IT is more efficient. The organization has linked its alerts to Ansible, and this automation allows the team to spin up new VMs very quickly.“I know we must be more productive because the business is sending us more work and we’re involved in far more projects than before. People obviously think we’re doing okay because we keep delivering,” summarizes Morley.

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