Unilever takes communication onto the Web

Unilever NV is rolling out a new Web-based system to improve communication with customers, suppliers and internal departments, it said Thursday.

The company is working with IBM Corp. on a new, multimillion dollar platform that will pull together information from its over 200 operating companies, and provide a consistent interface for suppliers and customers, it said.

Unilever is one of the world’s largest consumer product companies, with sales of US$56.4 billion in 2002. Based in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, it sells food, home and personal care products.

Back in 2000, Unilever realized that it had to get more effective at dealing with its trading partners – customers, suppliers and trading exchanges, Chris Turner, vice-president of applications architecture, said Thursday.

“We recognized that we had 200-odd operating companies, almost all of them connecting over VPNs (virtual private networks) to their customers. The problem was that they were all doing the same sort of things but with different EDI (Electronic Data Interchange) systems and with the high costs of running all the VPNs. It was very complicated,” Turner said.

Unilever looked at a broad range of suppliers before coming to a shortlist of two, and chose to work with IBM “because we felt they were a business who would be around long term,” Turner said. He did not consider a system based on Microsoft Corp.’s .Net architecture because “from an infrastructure point of view, we’re driven by Java and J2EE. We’ve a lot of Unix around, that’s what drives our infrastructure, and we didn’t want to have to replace all of that,” he said.

While the company did have to buy new hardware, “it was just a case of bigger servers, an extension of what we had before,” he said.

The Unilever system is based on IBM’s WebSphere Integration suite, with a global hub, or switch, based in North America, and five regional hubs, Paul Gambrill, IBM’s trading partner collaboration manager for Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA), said Thursday.

IBM used its WebSphere broker tool to pull together information from all the regional companies and communicate to the outside world through one central hub, Gambrill said.

The integration tools in WebSphere allow the hub to deal with different communication protocols and with all the systems run by Unilever companies, Gambrill said. “Unilever’s made a lot of acquisitions, and they all run differently,” he said.

Unilever will move towards using XML (Extensible Markup Language) once XML standards are established, Gambrill said.

“The connectivity switch allows us to route all communications from systems inside the company to outside, through a simple business to business gateway, and we can also connect the internal hubs directly to improve communications” Turner said.

The majority of the servers for the system are based at Unilever’s data centre in Connecticut, Turner said.

The system is now live in some parts of Unilever’s business, mainly in North America, Turner said. “Lots of the EDI for our ice cream business and our catalogues is going through it. The things that were being used to test it are now going live,” he said.

North America and Europe will be linked up first, Turner said, but it will be “quite a while” before Unilever gets all its suppliers linked up to the new IBM system, he said.

Turner would not give a precise cost for the project but said he is not too concerned about the eventual price. “We have a deal with IBM, in that we buy a significant amount from them and so we have very favourable terms with them. I think we’re protected against the infamous ‘creep’,” he said, referring to the tendency of prices to rise as an IT project continues.