Unilever was formed in 1930 by the merger of Dutch margarine producer, Margarine Unie and British soap maker, Lever Brothers. Today, the consumer goods giant sells food, home care, refreshments, and personal care products in over 190 countries. Unilever has headquarters in London, United Kingdom and Rotterdam, the Netherlands, and subsidiaries in over 90 countries. The company employs more than 170,000 people. In 2012, Unilever reported more than €51 billion in revenue.
Unilever North America in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey needed to re-design its infrastructure to support Unilever’s digital marketing approach. Unilever previously used on-premises data centers to host its web properties, all of which had different technologies and processes. “We needed to standardize our environment to support a faster time-to-market," says Sreenivas Yalamanchili, Digital Marketing Services (DMS) Global Technical Manager. Unilever optimizes its business model by testing a marketing campaign in a pilot country. If the campaign is successful, the company deploys it to other countries and regions. The IT organization wanted to use the cloud to implement the same process.
After a comprehensive RFP and review process involving more than 16 companies, Unilever chose Amazon Web Services (AWS). Unilever’s priorities in choosing a digital marketing platform included flexibility, a global infrastructure, technology, as well as a rich ecosystem of members. “With AWS, we have the same hosting provider for all regions, which means we don’t have to customize and tweak hosting solutions per region,” says Yalamanchili. “Unilever is focused on delivering great brands to consumers; it’s not an IT shop. We’re able to spend less and get more innovation by working with AWS and members of the AWS Partner Network.”
The Unilever IT team had two goals for the AWS migration: deliver a common technology platform for websites with regional content delivery architecture, and migrate existing web properties to the cloud.
To develop the platform, Unilever attended an AWS workshop to design the architecture. Then the DMS team built a pilot platform (a disaster recovery site for third-party hosting in Miami) for stakeholder review. After obtaining business approval, Unilever chose CSS Corporation, an Advanced Consulting Partner member of the Amazon Partner Network (APN), for system integration and application development. The DMS team worked with CSS to develop a global content management system (CMS) . The CMS platform lets agencies build brand web sites globally and publish them across several AWS regions. Unilever uses a HAProxy load balancer to improve performance of its web sites and runs its databases on Microsoft SQL Server and MySQL.
For disaster recovery, Unilever stores backup data, snapshots, product and recipe media files in Amazon Simple Storage Service (Amazon S3), and uses EBS Snapshot Copy to copy Amazon Elastic Block Store (Amazon EBS) snapshots from the US East (Northern Virginia) Region to the US West (Northern California) Region. “We designed a disaster recovery solution to protect our content management system, content deployment architecture, and many GOLD-classified web properties—and to give the business confidence in the AWS Cloud,” says Yalamanchili. Figure 1 demonstrates Unilever’s architecture on AWS.
Unilever and CSS created Amazon Machine Images (AMIs) running Windows and Linux for use on approximately 400 Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (Amazon EC2) instances. Amazon Virtual Private Cloud (Amazon VPC) provides flexibility for deployments and access to the Internet. Nick Morgan, Enterprise Architect for Digital Marketing comments, “What’s nice about using AWS is how easily we're able to scale the instances based on the nature of a campaign’s popularity. We used Auto Scaling as well as manual scaling for sites such as Recipedia.com and Axeapollo.com. We can deploy instances across different AWS Regions and Availability Zones and use Amazon EBS snapshots to bring services back.”
To migrate its web properties to the cloud, Unilever built pre-production and production environments on AWS for several existing websites. Once Unilever’s creative and production agencies certified the website in the pre-production environment, Unilever switched the DNS address for production environment to go live on AWS.
After a successful pilot launch, Unilever migrated more than 500 web properties from its data centers to AWS in less than five months. Since then, Unilever has more than 1,700 web properties running on AWS worldwide. “Throughout our business globally, we strive to create repeatable models and it’s easy to standardize our hosting environment with AWS,” says Yalamanchili. “If a marketing campaign that we deploy in the US East (Northern Virginia) Region is successful, we can easily replicate it to Asia Pacific (Singapore) Region for the APAC countries.”
CSS supplied Unilever with machine images of different operating systems, APIs and tools to automate the process of launching a new project. “The way CSS automated launching instances reduced the time to launch a project by about 75 percent,” says Morgan. “What used to take four days now only takes one day. We’re not rebuilding web and database servers from the ground up all the time. We can just clone and re-use images.”
For Unilever, moving to the AWS Cloud improved business agility and operational efficiency. “Previously, requesting a website for a marketing campaign was a lengthy process,” says Yalamanchili. “By using AWS, we improved time to launch for a digital marketing campaign from two weeks to an average of two days. That’s more than seven times faster than our traditional environment. If a brand manager has an idea, he or she can implement it before the competition,”
“Using AWS saves us time,” he continues. “I can simply go to the AWS website and plug in numbers to calculate costs. That makes it easy for me to set up a standard billing model for websites. It takes our partner, CSS, less than 12 hours to calculate pricing for a campaign website. I can comfortably say to my marketing folks that we have the capacity for anything we want to do. We can focus on innovation rather than infrastructure.”
“The other advantage is the responsiveness of the AWS Cloud,” says Yalamanchili. “By using AWS, one of the brand managers was able to completely alter a campaign within 24 hours, which wouldn’t happen with the physical infrastructure.”
“AWS listens to us and helps come up with ideas to do things differently that are beneficial,” says Morgan. “I really enjoy the rapid rate of innovation from AWS.” Yalamanchili adds, “With AWS, it’s the customer's way, always. AWS has proved to us that it's the customer that matters by listening to us and innovating products and services.”