Skip links



Australian-based retailer Coles was challenged with an ageing, in-store fleet of server hardware that resulted in lengthy server outages that disrupted store operations. Coles decided to implement a virtualisation solution built on Windows Server 2008 R2 SP1 Enterprise with Hyper-V technology. It also implemented Microsoft System Center solutions so that it could centrally manage its geographically dispersed infrastructure. Now, Coles has the highly available infrastructure that it needs to keep store operations running. The IT team can quickly respond to changing business needs, recover servers in seconds, and control costs—without interrupting service to store personnel and customers.




Supermarket & Retail


Cloud Management

Retailer Delivers High-Availability to Meet Business Needs with Server Virtualisation

Coles had ageing server hardware at its supermarkets causing weekly server outages that disrupted operations, resulting in significant loss of revenue.

Coles deployed Windows Server 2008 R2 SP1 Enterprise and Hyper-V at its 750 supermarkets and used Microsoft System Center solutions to centrally manage the virtualisation infrastructure.

Coles received the following benefits:

Increased system availability
Reduced server recovery time
Simplified IT management
Improved ability to meet business needs

The Challenge

Founded in 1914 with a single variety store, Coles has grown to more than 2,200 retail stores, including 741 grocery supermarkets. Coles also owns and operates 620 fuel and convenience stores, 785 liquor stores, and several distribution centres. Nearly a century since its founding by George Coles, the retail giant has more than 110,000 employees and is a mainstay for grocery shoppers across Australia.

The IT department at Coles plays a critical role in the company’s growth and success, ensuring it has the technology infrastructure necessary to support operations. Coles has two data centres, in addition to 30,000 endpoint devices, including client computers, point-of-sale terminals, and in-store kiosks, that it must keep running to handle back-office administrative tasks and more than 12 million customer transactions every week.

Although the company is geographically dispersed with IT needs across the continent, the IT department at Coles manages operations from a central location. In the event that in-store servers or other endpoint devices need attention, the company typically works with technology partners that can provide field support.

In addition to its dispersed infrastructure, Coles uses a heterogeneous server environment. It has been running VMware ESX server in its corporate headquarters since 2000, when the company took an early venture into server virtualisation. “At the time, we were early adopters of server virtualisation technology,” explains Ken Harmsworth, General Manager, Infrastructure Services and Operations at Coles. “Back then, we chose VMware because it was the only viable solution on the market.”

Even though the company was pleased with the performance of its VMware environment in the corporate offices, Coles was hesitant to implement a virtualisation strategy at its individual supermarket locations because the technology was widely considered still in its infancy. Instead, the company used the Windows Server 2003 operating system at its 750 supermarket locations with one application server and one point-of-sale server at each store, for a total of 1,500 physical servers.

Managing such an expansive infrastructure from a central location, however, took its toll on productivity and revenue, especially as the server fleet began to show its age. In 2009, some of the hardware was seven years old, and the company experienced an increasing number of critical-server outages at its supermarket locations because of hardware failures.

Though it was increasingly difficult for the IT department to keep store operations running smoothly with the ageing server fleet, the situation turned critical when the company implemented business software that automated the replenishment lifecycle for retail items in the supermarkets. “We were adding business-critical software that had an increased reliance on the in-store servers,” explains Craig Morton, Store Technical Services Manager at Coles. “We knew that the outages would only continue and, without a solution, we would be crippling our own ability to provide service to the business. We just couldn’t risk hours or even days of outages with more and more store operations being supported by the servers.”

Every time a store’s servers failed, critical store operational functions were hampered, such as the ability to create orders, run reports, or handle customer transactions. “In the event of catastrophic failures, some stores were forced to close their doors to our customers, and we knew that we were losing both productivity and revenue,” says Harmsworth. “This trickles down and also negatively impacts the customer experience because customers count on us to be open and available to present them with stocked shelves, correct prices, and payment options.”

Because it had more than a decade of experience managing a virtualised server environment in its corporate headquarters, Coles knew that it wanted to explore server virtualisation in its supermarkets. “Our primary goal was to find a server virtualisation solution that we could deploy with high availability and that would offer quick disaster recovery, even from a central location,” explains Harmsworth. “In the event of a failure, we need to get stores back up and running in a matter of minutes, not hours or days.”

“If one physical server fails, it is configured to automatically move over to the next physical server. In most cases, store personnel are not even aware that a server has failed—thanks to Hyper-V.”

Craig Morton

Store Technical Services Manager, Coles

The Solution

After evaluating the virtualisation technologies that other companies in the retail industry were using to manage geographically dispersed infrastructures, Coles decided to deploy Windows Server 2008 R2 SP1 Enterprise with Hyper-V technology at each of its 741 supermarket locations. In addition, the company chose Microsoft System Center products to manage and orchestrate its infrastructure in the supermarkets. “Virtualisation solutions from Microsoft have matured significantly over the last few years,” explains Harmsworth, “and we find a single-vendor solution more attractive when it comes to using IT resources more efficiently.”

High-Availability Architecture Design: Coles started by working with Australia– based Xello, a member of the Microsoft Partner Network that has Gold competencies in virtualisation, systems management, and desktop. The companies have worked together on other strategic technology projects since 2008.

Over an 18-month period, the companies designed the solution architecture to be implemented at each store, which consists of two-node clusters running Windows Server 2008 R2 SP1 with Hyper-V—a commonly used high-availability architecture (see Figure 1). Coles uses two virtual server hosts in each of its supermarket locations: one serves as the application server, the other as the point-of-sale server. The application server runs applications that help keep the stores operating smoothly, including file and print services. In addition, the application servers run propriety software, such as applications for automated replenishment and inventory management, meat and deli scale management, and back-of-store functions. The point-of-sale server hosts the proprietary software that the stores rely on to process more than 11 million customer transactions each week, including electronic funds transfer, gift cards, and loyalty transactions. The two physical hosts, which run on Fujitsu Primergy RX300 S6 servers, are connected by a fully-redundant storage area network (SAN) that runs on a Fujitsu Externus DX60 storage server.

Coles uses Cluster Shared Volumes in its failover clusters, a feature in Windows Server 2008 R2 that enables virtual machines to access the same virtual hard disk files. At the same time, virtual machines in the cluster can move from node to node during a failover process independently of one another, without causing other virtual machines on the same hard disk to fail over.

The company also takes advantage of Dynamic Memory, an enhancement to Hyper-V that was introduced in Windows Server 2008 R2 SP1, to further enable high availability. By using Dynamic Memory, Coles can pool memory on a host machine and dynamically distribute it to other virtual machines in the cluster as necessary. The memory is automatically added or removed, based on server workloads, without service interruption, so that Coles can make efficient use of all available physical memory.

After designing the high-availability architecture with Xello, Coles also worked with Fujitsu to run pilot deployments and test the virtualisation solution in various store settings. In April 2011, after a successful pilot phase, Coles started rolling out the solution with Hyper-V to individual supermarket locations. By October 2011, the company had implemented the high-availability virtualisation solution to 300 stores and plans to have a total of 550 stores completed by the end of 2011. It will continue its deployment efforts at the remaining 200 supermarket locations throughout 2012. When the project is complete, Coles will have a total of 1,500 virtual hosts and 2,250 virtual machines in its 750 supermarkets.

Centralized Infrastructure Management: Coles worked with Xello to implement System Center products and technologies in order to centrally manage its physical and virtual server environments at its supermarket locations. One of the company’s key goals was to gain the ability to enable IT personnel to manage the geographically dispersed infrastructure from a central location. Xello played several important roles for this stage of the project. The company helped design the System Center environment that Coles used, helped implement the technologies, and also developed custom training materials to help IT staff at Coles manage the environment. “Our core focus at Xello is helping customers drive value from the System Center products,” says Neil Christie, General Manager at Xello. “System Center technologies are not just point products, but are best-of-breed solutions for systems management.”

At its data centers, Coles uses Microsoft System Center Configuration Manager 2007 to build and manage host servers at individual supermarket locations. Coles uses Microsoft System Center Virtual Machine Manager 2008 R2 to deploy, manage, and optimise its guest machines. It also uses System Center Data Protection Manager 2010 as a unified backup and recovery solution for each of the supermarket locations. “We use System Center Data Protection Manager to perform cross-server backups,” explains Morton. “That means that each of the two servers in the individual stores back up to each other and help ensure high availability of services.”

Coles also implemented Opalis, an automation platform for orchestrating and integrating IT tools. Opalis integrates and orchestrates the Microsoft System Center products and other management tools to automate best practices, such as incident response, change and compliance, and service–lifecycle management processes. Specifically, Coles uses Opalis in conjunction with Microsoft System Center Operations Manager 2007 R2. “We use System Center Operations Manager to proactively identify when there is a problem with our virtualized infrastructure and then use Opalis to automatically push that information into a proprietary logging tool,” explains Harmsworth.

Going forward, Coles plans to expand how it uses System Center solutions to manage its physical and virtual environment. For instance, in the long term, the company plans to use System Center Configuration Manager to also build guest machines for its host servers at the supermarkets. It will also evaluate Microsoft System Center 2012 Orchestrator 2012, the next release of Opalis. “We’ve barely scratched the surface of the capabilities that Opalis offers,” says Harmsworth. “We hope to explore more automation opportunities with System Center Orchestrator in the future.”

The Outcome

By using Windows Server 2008 R2 with Hyper-V technology in its 741 supermarket locations, in addition to System Center products and technologies at its data centers, Coles achieved the highly available infrastructure and disaster recovery solution that it needed to keep its store operations running. Instead of trying to manage server outages, the IT department is confident that its server infrastructure can support business-critical applications. Now, in the event of hardware failure, the team can actually recover the servers without store personnel even noticing. In addition, the IT department at Coles now spends less time reacting to IT issues—it can be more proactive, resolve infrastructure issues before they become paralysing problems, and quickly respond to changing business needs.

Increased System Availability

When Coles started its venture into server virtualsation at its individual supermarket locations, its primary goal was to create a highly available infrastructure that supported—not hindered—retail operations. By using Windows Server 2008 R2 SP1 with Hyper-V, the company is confident that it can increasingly continue to rely on its server infrastructure to run business-critical applications. “We designed our infrastructure with high availability in mind and achieved that with a combination of Hyper-V, Cluster Shared Volumes, and updated server hardware,” says Harmsworth. “Now, we are confident that our systems will be up and running when store personnel and, even more importantly, when our customers need hem.”

Improved Recovery Times from Server Failure

In addition to ensuring high availability for its infrastructure, Coles also wanted to improve its disaster recovery strategy in the event of server failure. Now, by using failover clusters for its Hyper-V roles with a shared SAN, Coles has full failover capabilities in the event of hardware failure. “If one physical server fails, it is configured to automatically move over to the next physical server,” explains Morton. “In most cases, store personnel are not even aware that a server has failed—thanks to Hyper-V.”

Simplified IT Management with a Standardized Solution

Although Coles began its virtualisation efforts in its corporate offices more than a decade ago with VMware, the company will consider Hyper-V instead of VMware for those servers in the future. “As we prove Hyper-V to be the best solution for our store environments, we will consider using Hyper-V in our corporate offices, too,” says Harmsworth. One of the key reasons for considering Hyper-V in the corporate offices is the simplified IT management that Coles sees as a result of using a standardised, single-vendor solution from Microsoft. “With Windows Server, Hyper-V, and System Center technologies, we can have a single-vendor solution, which makes management easier and helps us contain costs,” explains Harmsworth.

Improved Responsiveness to Business Demands

Before adopting a server virtualisation strategy for its individual supermarket locations, the IT team at Coles struggled to keep up with the needs of the business. “We were really focused on keeping critical servers up and running in a reactive environment,” says Harmsworth. “Now, with highly available Hyper-V clusters in our infrastructure, we can take advantage of other opportunities to help the business improve.” Although server consolidation on a massive scale was not a primary goal for the company, the IT department at Coles now can respond to changing business needs and scale up its infrastructure as needed. “By using Hyper-V and System Center solutions, we can easily spin up a new virtual machine on existing hardware from a central location without worrying about devoting costly resources to deploying a physical server,” continues Harmsworth. “With virtualisation, we’re there when the business needs us.”