Unilever, the Anglo-Dutch foods and personal products conglomerate, has an annual turnover approaching £30bn and massive IT requirements. As the company takes its first steps on the path to open source, vnunet.com spoke to global chief information officer Neil Cameron.
What are the main drivers pushing you towards open source?
Fundamentally, open source is about flexibility and ultimately about cost.
How about other things like security and so on?
They're the issues one faces on the journey to get to this cost opportunity. One needs robust products, security, future-proofing, support. All of the infrastructure one gets in proprietary land is what needs to come with it.
So open source on its own, while interesting, is not going to scale a large corporation unless you've got those other components.
Are you considering things like open source databases, J2EE, web services?
We have people looking at this sort of stuff all the time, writing position papers, understanding where it is today and where it will be in the near term and long term. As you know, it's very complex, and if you ask three people you'll get four points of view.
There are potentially so many opportunities in all this stuff. Every other day I read that yet another person has adopted something - some are at scale, some fairly modest, some more broad.
I think that getting under the skin of what people are doing and are really trying to achieve is so important. Headlines help in changing the landscape, but they don't help anyone make decisions.
Is Unilever coming from mainframes and Unix on the server?
Well, we have no more mainframes at all. We have Unix for our large-scale applications. We have Windows as well. We're a typical heterogeneous environment: we have something of everything somewhere in our business.
One is always faced with that challenge in that heterogeneous world: how do you provide real security in its broadest sense - availability, reliability, integrity, access, authentication, navigation? All of those things are hugely challenging.
Historically, the answer was always to standardise everything and make it homogeneous, and then you can manage it. Clearly, that's not realistic in today's world.
Is that because of things like, for instance, mergers and acquisitions?
Absolutely. And we have joint ventures, so one has that complexity to manage. That becomes an ongoing challenge; it's not going away any time soon.
What applications are being taken across to open source?
At the moment the migration of applications [is] purely infrastructure, firewalls [and so on]. It's been at that low level and I think we're being appropriately cautious.
There are other ways today of moving from a legacy cost and performance structure into other available products.
It's not quite step-changing but giving yourself a significant benefit that narrows the gap between that which has been available, and some of the open source opportunities. One can walk towards the edge without jumping over it.
What do you see as your main challenges?
Our challenge is getting the balance between trying to be a globally local company and getting benefits of scale.
So, at one end of the spectrum, companies that have one application that drives all of the activities across the globe have the greatest opportunity for efficiency, versus those which operate in a completely federated manner, [with] applications in every country for every application ever in the world.
I'm trying to find that sweet spot in the middle, which still allows us to be responsive, still recognise local differences, still be at the customer and consumer end, while leveraging our scale. That's our challenge.
Are you meeting that to a great extent?
Well, we're moving, learning and getting better at doing that with a regional focus. In Latin America [we've had] huge success. We have true regional processes and complete regional systems so, as we move forward, all countries in Latin America will run off of one transactional system, one customer relationship management system, one information system.
It's been a huge exercise to achieve that in all countries right the way down from the Caribbean and Mexico into Brazil, Argentina and Chile and all those other countries.
We've been converging systems, processes [and] information over the past couple of years, even putting in interim systems to bridge between these many local systems to create sub-regional systems on the journey to consolidate to regional systems.
Where are your systems located? For instance, have you just one in Latin America now?
Yes. That's out of Brazil [but] it's actually hosted in our data centre in Trumbull, Connecticut. For Europe, we have all our major applications hosted in St David's Park in Cheshire.
We have six regions. Each has a convergence plan [covering] systems, data and processes. And we have approaches relevant to that region.
So in Europe, which is 40 per cent of our business, we're converging on SAP systems: one for our home and personal care business and one for our foods business. There's no plan at the moment to put those on Linux.
Have you current strategies related to the desktop?
Yes. I've got to be careful because we're in negotiations with various approaches and we haven't made decisions yet. [But] if I go away from being product-specific, we are looking at thin-client options, thick-client options, mobility and productivity.
We're looking at all the generic tools that would make up a portfolio and seeing how best to deliver it to the business on a global basis. It's approximately 100,000 desktops, so it's one that we need to be careful and think carefully about.
Do licensing issues come into all this in any significant way?
Obviously that's part of what you do. You look at the various licensing options and enterprise deals and what you get, and need to get, for your money.
That's where we are at the moment, really looking at all the options and deciding which way to come down both in terms of product sets - and licensing options within those product sets - and timing.
I know the Open Source Development Labs wants more end-user feedback. Does being a member of the OSDL have an impact on Unilever?
No. That was very much wanting to understand where this was all going, and potentially to influence it.
But at the end of the day we'll make commercial decisions. I guess level and rate of adoption [of Linux] means you'll get more clarity and focus from companies like IBM [in the future].
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