by Sandra Gittlen

Google Apps Catapult BI-LO Supermarkets to the Cloud

Aug 10, 20117 mins
Cloud ComputingEnterprise ApplicationsInternet

The BI-LO supermarket chain is ringing up significant cost savings and productivity increases, following a move to Google Apps from a legacy IBM Lotus Notes system. Find out why BI-LO chose Google Apps over a Notes upgrade and over Microsoft's cloud offering, and about all the benefits the grocer is reaping. Cha-ching!

A good indicator that you’re in need of a new email system is when your entire executive team offers to be part of a pilot group for a new platform.

In late 2009, BI-LO, a chain of more than 200 supermarkets in the southeastern U.S., determined it had extracted the last breaths from its legacy IBM Lotus Notes installation. IBM was end-of-lifing the version BI-LO was clinging to, meaning it would no longer support the product. This left the IT team with a choice—upgrade or find another solution.

“I procrastinated on making a change because of cost and the potential impact to productivity. We finally reached the point where something had to be done,” says Carol deWitt, CIO of the Greenville, S.C.-based BI-LO.

deWitt decided to migrate to Google Apps, leaping from the antiquated version of Lotus Notes to the cutting-edge world of cloud services. The move has saved the company thousands of dollars annually, as it costs about 60 percent less than the company’s Lotus Notes installation.

But deWitt says the benefits of Google Apps stretch beyond pure savings and to alleviating the many challenges the company faced with Lotus Notes—what deWitt’s colleague Jason Breazeale refers to as “living within the legacy system.”

Notes Woes

Long before IBM’s end-of-life announcement, deWitt and Breazeale, who is BI-LO’s senior manager of architecture and planning, were experiencing serious issues and limitations with Notes.

Front and center was the product’s inability to gracefully handle Web-based access. Breazeale says working with Notes’ Web client was slow and awkward. With 17,000 workers spread across four states, Web access to email was becoming critical for frequent communication.

BI-LO outfitted some users with Lotus Notes’ fat client to avoid the kludgy Web version. But the fat client had problems such as limited storage levels that became more apparent as file sizes grew. “We started to have hundreds of tickets per quarter for fat-client support alone,” Breazeale says.

The company decided to take advantage of Lotus Notes’ BlackBerry application. It was a better option for some users, but the strain on IT was still evident. To ensure proper security and compliance, the team enacted new user policies. Email was inflexible as users could only access it via corporate BlackBerrys connected to the corporate BlackBerry Enterprise Server, according to deWitt – no personal devices allowed.

Additionally, the distributed nature of messages presented a compliance challenge. Corporate email, considered critical business records, were strewn around in individual mailboxes on PCs, rather than centrally stored. Archives consisted of a long string that was difficult to search through.

Compounding the issue was that archives were stored on tapes off-site. Any time legal or HR needed to rummage through messages for e-discovery or complaint forensics, it was a tedious process. In fact, deWitt estimates that a single e-discovery query could eat up most of one email administrator’s time. “As soon as a request came in, we would assume that support SLAs would be impacted and all project work would be stopped,” deWitt says.

Requirements Point to the Cloud

deWitt and Breazeale concluded that whatever email platform they chose would have to easily support mobile workers, improve headquarters-to-stores communication, feature built-in disaster recovery and archiving, and include user-friendly search and query tools.

The company ruled out going to a new on-premise version of IBM Lotus Notes because they deemed the required infrastructure upgrade and ongoing software licensing and maintenance to be cost-prohibitive. Having just emerged from bankruptcy at the time, keeping costs low was critical.

This narrowed the field to cloud offerings. Microsoft’s Business Productivity Online Standard Suite (BPOS) and Google Apps led the pack in BI-LO’s early evaluations. At the time, Microsoft and Google were neck-and-neck on pricing at about $50 per user, so it was difficult to choose between them on cost alone, Breazeale notes.

Instead, the team had to compare feature-by-feature as well as extraneous factors. For instance, BI-LO was not a Microsoft SharePoint user and deWitt felt BPOS would work best hand-in-hand with SharePoint. That would mean buying a SharePoint license and adding SharePoint administrators and developers, a different direction than the cloud vision she and Breazeale had in mind.

The pair also were turned off by the complexity of the administration. BPOS had a tiering option that would allow them to save money on deskless users. But determining who could be classified as a deskless user among the 5,600 email users and then keeping an eye on any shifts to that classification seemed too onerous for the BI-LO team.

The last issue concerned e-discovery. To go with Microsoft, they felt they’d still need to find an additional sophisticated yet inexpensive archive and search tool.

Going with Google

All of those “cons” led them to Google Apps. Google Apps is an ever-expanding suite of services that cover mail, calendaring, chat, document and presentation creation and sharing, group portals, and other collaborative tasks. Although deWitt and Breazeale wondered how users would take to the cloud concept, an internal survey revealed that 30 percent of employees used Gmail at home and more than 50 percent of the company used some form of Web-based email for personal use a clear indicator they’d be open to this migration.

With help from Google consultant Cloud Sherpas, BI-LO conducted a pilot test among 30 to 35 IT users. That quickly broadened out to 90 and included BI-LO’s senior executives, who insisted on being early adopters. The IT team equipped them with Apple iPads and iPhones to test the mobility of Google Apps. The executives gave a resounding thumbs-up to what they experienced as ubiquitous access.

Once IT received this seal of approval, late last year they proceeded to the general rollout for the other 5,500 users, turning it into a grand affair and offering prizes for users who found bugs. They also began to introduce users to the Google Sites collaboration portal by making it the homepage for all things regarding the Google deployment.

Something for Everyone

Users were excited about being able to access their email from their own devices—so much so that BI-LO revised all of its user policies to include details about the use of Google Apps. For instance, there is a provision that although BI-LO supports “bring your own device,” it reserves the right to remotely wipe that device (including personal Gmail) if the company suspects a security risk.

For HR and Legal, the Postini tool within Google Apps has enabled a faster response on e-discovery and complaint investigations. All email is centralized, archived and searchable. In fact, Breazeale hopes to soon hand over the reins for searching to users themselves, removing IT from the process altogether.

Outside of email, users are starting to redo business processes using the collaborative forms available in Google Apps. Employees can easily develop, share and track feedback on spreadsheets for budgets, marketing campaigns and new store construction. HR intends to use Google’s video chat to cut down on the travel currently required to interview job candidates. “We’re using Google Apps—and hopefully Google+ soon—to be far more social and interactive,” deWitt says.

She adds that Google has provided far more security in its cloud-based environment, including controls on user access, than BI-LO could on-site. That heightened security is essential because BI-LO stores have pharmacies that have to follow HIPAA rules and POS terminals that fall under the Payment Card Industry standard, among other mandates.

Google Apps’ biggest impact has been on IT. Rather than being consumed by keeping the legacy email infrastructure lights on, the three-person team that had been focused on email spends their time finding better strategies for business processes.

Breazeale does warn that large companies will need a partner because while Google documentation is good for deployment, it does not handle specific migration questions and tasks as well. “Cloud Sherpas has really helped us troubleshoot issues specific to our Notes migration,” he says.

deWitt calls Google Apps a good first step into the cloud. “When you have a good experience, you are apt to consider similar ones and this has definitely been a good experience for us,” she says.

Sandra Gittlen is a freelance business and technology writer based in the greater Boston area. She can be reached at