IT continuity in the spotlight

Continuity rarely attracts attention. But behind the scenes, Colruyt Group IT is hard at work keeping the whole company running smoothly. Wim and Marc talk about the ins and outs of our continuity projects.

IT continuity… what exactly does that mean?

Wim: “Quite simply, we make sure the business stays up and running. Our IT infrastructure needs regular maintenance to ensure our business operations run smoothly at all times. That means both hardware and software because we keep an eye on the big picture at the IAAS (Infrastructure As A Service) department. Our hardware ranges from the laptops for office workers to the servers in all of our stores. Older hardware must be replaced or suppliers won’t be able to provide us with spare parts. And some software is no longer supported. For example, Microsoft Teams does not run on PCs that are older than five years.”

Department head IAAS Wim Pletinckx As head of the IAAS department, Wim Pletinckx is concerned with continuity each and every day.

What does software have to do with continuity?

Wim: “Bugs can sneak into software in programs written by our IT staff or even operating systems from external partners. We need to get the bugs out to prevent operational problems and security risks. Hackers love to exploit security holes in software to gain entry.”

Marc: “This is an important part of Colruyt Group IT’s mission. We provide stable, high-performance and secure systems. Both today and tomorrow. For example, the company’s business units don’t have to worry about continuity because we safeguard their systems for them. We not only build new services, we also extend existing solutions with new functionality.”

Wim: “And software becomes obsolete. So keeping everything up to date is an absolute must. We’re as proactive as possible to minimise disruption for the end user as much as possible. For example, we build our systems so that hardware problems have no or limited impact on IT operations. Of course, we also respond to issues raised by the users themselves.”

Wim, IAAS department head
We want to prevent any impact on our end users as much as possible.

Guaranteeing the continuity of software and hardware… sounds like a tall order.

Wim: “Absolutely! So, we organise ourselves well to keep everything running. For example, the IAAS department is an international team operating out of both Halle and Hyderabad. Belgium focuses more on the engineering side, while India handles support and operational work. But all of our colleagues work together as global teams. Maintenance must often occur at night outside most employees’ working hours. But in India, that’s just when they start their day. A huge advantage!”

IT division manager Marc Claes and Wim Pletinckx from the IAAS department Marc Claes is in charge of the IT Internal Departments division, which includes IAAS.

Marc: “We draw up roadmaps to identify all necessary maintenance tasks. These are critical for maintaining an overview and also for future planning. You can’t do everything at once, so we plan projects over time. We include dependencies in roadmaps. So you can immediately see which applications run on which software package and what impact an update will have. This is crucial because we increasingly use software packages – such as SAP – rather than in-house developed software. This means we must synch up with suppliers’ update cycles when it comes to maintenance. Our roadmaps are particularly helpful here as we can compare theirs and ours side by side.”

IT division manager Marc Claes at a whiteboard

How many continuity projects are running at the moment?

Wim: “Around 80% of the projects we initiate in the IAAS department have to do with continuity. That’s something like 30 to 40 per year. A project can last from one month to several years. And then you have the operational work like regularly updating laptops. This is not a project as such, but it is definitely a part of continuity. My compliments to everyone in our department. More than 200 employees go to work every day to guarantee the continuity of our IT.”

Marc: “And you also have other departments working on continuity, but on the applications and technology platforms side. You just can’t put a number on it for all of Colruyt Group IT. I estimate that 40% of IT projects fall under run: troubleshooting and performing necessary maintenance.”

Give an example of a challenging continuity project.

Marc: “In 2007, the supplier of the ObjectStar platform announced that they would stop their support. So, we launched a major project to replace the many applications that ran on that platform. That eventually took more than a decade. Although it was more than just a continuity project.”

Wim: “If you do nothing, part of the business will eventually come to a standstill. So from that perspective, this project also guaranteed continuity.” 

IT division manager Marc Claes and Wim Pletinckx from the IAAS department at a whiteboard

Wim: “With such large projects, we engage project managers to keep everything on track. In most cases, our systems engineers or infrastructure managers take on that role. They are already responsible for looking at lifecycle management and know what must be done in terms of continuity.”

Marc: “Another focus area for larger projects is collaboration with other departments. For example, a new software version must be tested first. However such tests are not done in IAAS. Other departments must then free up time and people to participate in the required maintenance. We use the roadmaps, so they too are aware of the necessary updates and what impact they have.”

Wim: “That’s definitely something we have grown into… letting people know what work is on the shelf and engaging the departments in that thread.”

How has continuity evolved over the years?

Marc: “The diversity of the group reflects the diversity of our IT landscape. We now use more software packages and that also creates more continuity work. We want to accommodate that as efficiently as possible.”

Wim: “Automation is key here. It means that all kinds of minor maintenance issues don’t have to be done manually. And we can keep the same number of staff who can work on even more software programs. Technology also plays a big role. For example, system-generated incidents. The system self-detects that there is a problem even before an end user has noticed it.”

And when you look ahead?

Wim: “AI (artificial intelligence) has the potential to provide even more efficiency. What if AI could predict something going wrong based on correlations with what is happening in other systems? The next step would be the system itself intervening and solving the issue. An employee doesn’t even have to intervene.”

Marc: “In any event, the importance of continuity will never diminish. In fact, it’s also included in Colruyt Group IT’s strategic plan and our mission statement: inspire, source and operate. Continuity actually takes precedence over innovative build projects, because you can’t introduce new things if your infrastructure is outdated.”

Wim: “And one certainly does not exclude the other! When something new comes along, it also opens doors for IT infrastructure. So, run and build go hand in hand. We just want to raise awareness about all the invisible work under the bonnet that makes the engine run.”

Marc, division manager
We can be proud that we contribute to stable, high-performance and secure systems every day.