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n°21  |  December   2007
Guest contributors
“Virtualization: a good way to get rid of hardware dependencies and complexity”
Interview with Juergen Bartling, Chief Information Officer, Sonepar

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Sonepar is the European market leader in the electrical wholesale business. With revenues of €9.4 billion, 22,650 employees and a growth rate exceeding 10% per annum over the last 20 years, Sonepar is represented by over 100 companies operating in 29 countries on four continents. Bull has worked alongside Sonepar Deutschland and its IT-service provider Sonepar Deutschland Information Services throughout its IT infrastructure development and rationalization projects.

How are Sonepar Deutschland's business objectives affecting its IT infrastructure choices?
As a B2B supplier of electronic installation materials and related services, our business is to seek out manufacturers, and to identify and select the best electrical equipment and technical solutions. We then make these solutions available to our customers - usually electrical installers and industrial customers - in the right place, at the right time and at the right price. This means we have a vast amount of data to manage: our catalogue includes 500,000 products, from 1,250 suppliers, which all have to be available through our sales network or online!
Our market is evolving rapidly, so we have three key objectives to grow our business: developing know-how, quality and reliability, for both products and services. Sonepar in Germany is a group with six operating companies, around 3,500 employees and more than 170 branches. We believe it is very important to give all our users the freedom to act close to the customer with IT solutions provided country-by-country using decentralized structures... In article management for instance, we have built our information systems around ETIM (Electro-Technical Information Model), an Open Source classification model for electrical goods. ETIM ensures a standardized flow of information all the way from the manufacturer to the customer, accelerates data exchanges and provides vendor-independent information. Our IT infrastructure is designed to fully leverage ETIM. By the way the whole Sonepar Group Etim Center is a department of the German Sonepar IT Service Company.

What is Sonepar Deutschland's strategy for IT infrastructure development and rationalization?
We wanted to maximize ease of access to information (both internally and externally), the flexibility of our IT architecture and high availability. To achieve this, we have created a three-tier infrastructure. For user access, we use thin clients, either Web or Citrix (covering 75% of our employees). For the middle tier, our databases rely on Oracle, running on Bull Escala AIX servers, with micro-partitioning. We also use Windows servers with VMware virtualization for other applications, and we have a complete data warehouse environment.
Last but not least, we rely on a central host environment for sales and distribution systems, with Bull NovaScale servers running GCOS mainframe applications. The back office and mid-tier environments are consolidated into two data centers, for comprehensive high availability. On top of this infrastructure, we have built our applications in a SOA architecture, to guarantee both flexibility and consistency. Sonepar Deutschland's business involves different systems and companies, each with their own data and their own customers. So getting the right customer number, article and price are vital. Our SOA enables us to assure consistency, by using the same servers to deliver the right numbers and the right prices. It gives our employees and customers consistent access to product and purchasing information through various channels: Sonepar Deutschland's own on-line store, developed in Java, a number of “eas-y” shops that give customers the opportunity to run their own Internet stores with direct connections to our systems, as well as our e-procurement environment.

What benefits do you get from your IT infrastructure?
We started to consolidate our IT and refurbish our Cobol applications a few years ago, and we have grown to the point where we now use a Java environment for on-line shops and e-procurement. The results have been amazing. The flexibility, performance and reliability of our infrastructure are proving excellent. With the help of Bull, we succeeded in mastering our IT infrastructure to sustain the rapid growth of our business.

Which best practices do you recommend in IT rationalization?
In to our experience, a modular approach and a clear focus on standardization of solutions are key, especially for applications developed in house. Another key point is virtualization. As the data center incorporates many technology layers, built year-on-year, you need to get rid of hardware dependencies and complexity. That's what virtualization offers. It gives us maximum performance with minimum investment in hardware.

A last point is the use of a SOA, to ensure consistent responses from each package or program, and enable us to develop flexible business applications. All these best practices have proved essential to our success.

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