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American Crystal Sugar

Server Virtualization Ensures Efficiency of Supply Chain

Most of us think of sugar as something that is purchased in small amounts as an errand on the way home, or as something to be used to sweeten coffee, baked goods or home cooked recipes. What most do not see or think about, however, is the critical supply and distribution chain behind sugar. Sugar’s entire supply and distribution chain is designed to ensure it is safely harvested, manufactured and shipped to distributors, before finally ending up in thousands of consumer products and millions of kitchen tables.

United Sugars Corporation, and one of its three parent companies, American Crystal Sugar Company, live this supply chain each day. While American Crystal concentrates on harvesting raw sugarbeets to transform into sugar, United Sugars prepares to ship this newly refined product to a nationwide network of distributors and industrial users.

The inventory strategy supported by United Sugars and American Crystal to ensure distributors are never without sugar is “Just-In-Time”. Originated by the Ford Motor Company, and detailed by Henry Ford in his 1923 book My Life and Work, “Just-In-Time” is built around the principle of receiving just enough product to carry a company through its immediate needs. “Just-In-Time” ensures distributors pay minimal overhead by keeping only necessary inventory on hand.

What Henry Ford could not have anticipated when first envisioning “Just-In-Time”, however, was that 90 years in the future his strategy would be supported by companies so immense, that it would take massive data centers to ensure proper coordination.

Technical Innovations Contribute To And Challenge “Just-In-Time”
“On any given day, we deploy hundreds of trucks and rail cars, each filled with sugar,” states Roger Perala, Business Systems Manager at United Sugars. “Each rail car is outfitted with RFID allowing our data center to instantly locate any sugar shipment. What this means to our distributors is that United Sugars is able to maintain a consistent supply of sugar to meet demand and that should a disruption occur, we can immediately locate and divert a shipment to their location.”

The location of shipments within United Sugars and American Crystal’s distribution channels, whether the delivery mechanism is trucks or rail car, is tracked by an expansive data center. The challenge experienced when managing “Just-In-Time” arose when it came time for United Sugars and American Crystal’s IT professionals to implement software updates at the data center.

Taking Necessary Steps To Ensure Sugar’s Efficient Distribution
“The necessary process at United Sugars, and at American Crystal, of upgrading applications such as shipment tracking on our physical servers could be expensive and time consuming,” states Roger Perala. “It was essential, however, to spend the time and money necessary to ensure our distributors always had sugar.”

To upgrade applications such as shipment tracking on their servers, both United Sugars and American Crystal followed a server provisioning process, which included:

  • Creating a physical test server that exactly matched the production server
  • Testing new applications to ensure proper interaction with the server
  • Bring the tested applications over for go live testing and implementation
Only after significant financial expenditure on server provisioning, and significant time spent on testing a new application, would United Sugars and American Crystal update physical servers with a new application, such as RFID.

“A typical provisioning process would take our IT professionals roughly two weeks,” continues Perala. “Once our IT team proved that new applications interacted properly with our live servers, we upgraded each of our physical servers, which resulted in nearly a half day worth of downtime per server.”

The time and money spent on server provisioning and upgrades by United Sugars and American Crystal was meant to ensure that any new application such as shipment tracking, would perform its expected function within the data center. Anything less could result in a system crash or severely disrupt the supply chain.

Reducing Provisioning Costs & Downtime By Reducing Physical Servers
To lower costs and improve supply chain efficiency, United Sugars and American Crystal needed to eliminate its costly and time consuming server provisioning process. By doing this, they would also eliminate the downtime to upgrade new applications.

The search for a solution led United Sugars and American Crystal to Minneapolis, MN based IT architects Evolving Solutions. Evolving Solutions was brought in to architect a solution that would enable United Sugars and American Crystal to upgrade applications without the time and financial outlay being experienced.

“Essentially, United Sugars and American Crystal needed to significantly reduce data center physical servers,” states Evolving Solutions’ Mike Keeler, who architected a server virtualization solution for both United Sugars and American Crystal. “Server virtualization was a solution we had implemented in hundreds of other data centers and felt it was a perfect solution for these companies.”

Server virtualization reduces the quantity of physical servers in a data center by consolidating them into a virtual environment. By eliminating physical servers, United Sugars and American Crystal would reduce the time needed to provision servers and diminish the need for downtime. Within twelve weeks for United Sugars, and twenty weeks for parent company American Crystal, Evolving Solutions migrated both data centers into a virtual environment.

Two Week Provisioning and Upgrade Process Reduced to Ten Minutes
“With server virtualization, our entire process of provisioning a server and making physical upgrades disappeared,” states Perala. “A timeframe of approximately two weeks needed to install one upgrade was replaced with a time period of approximately ten minutes.”

Server virtualization was critical to the overall success of the “Just-In-Time” inventory and distributor supply chains managed by United Sugars and American Crystal. Rather than spending weeks upgrading a new application such as shipment tracking, the United Sugars and American Crystal IT team now spend their time focused on other mission critical tasks.

Efficient Disaster Recovery An Added Benefit of Virtualization
“Prior to server virtualization, mission critical data on our physical severs was backed up to tape based systems by our IT team and housed offsite,” continues Perala. “While this ensured our data would be safe in the event of a disaster, it also posed a significant challenge as it took hours to recover data.” With server virtualization, each day the United Sugars data center is copied to another location. Intermediate copies of critical files are copied offsite hourly. In the event of a disaster or data center crash, mission critical data can be recovered within minutes, ensuring not even a minor disruption will be felt in United Sugars’ data center, or their distributor supply chains.

With server virtualization by Evolving Solutions, the IT teams, working in United Sugars and American Crystal’s data centers, have been able to replace a server provisioning process that was both costly and time consuming. Additionally, server virtualization has benefited both United Sugars and parent company American Crystal as a whole via the addition of offsite disaster recovery.

Download American Crystal Sugar Success Study PDF.