The big move

In September 2012, the Co-operative Group will relocate its corporate headquarters to a new building in Manchester’s northern quarter. But the £180 million project is not simply a change of location; it also represents a dramatic cultural change for the world’s largest co-operative.

Firstly, the organisation is taking the opportunity to reduce its carbon footprint radically. The new office’s design is rated ‘Outstanding’ under the BREEAM standards for the environmental performance of buildings, and the Co-operative Group is building a combined heat and power (CHP) plant to generate its own electricity.

Meanwhile, the group is also introducing flexible working. Around 1,000 staff will have 300 desks to share between them in the new building, while the remaining 2,000 employees will have ‘semi-permanent’ workstations that can be used by any staff member.

The move to flexible working means that storing paper documents in filing cabinets is no longer appropriate, and decades-worth of documents are being scanned and digitised in preparation for the move. “We are only keeping the paper documents we need by law,” explains Ian Cawson, the Co-operative Group’s technical architect.

The strategy also calls for desktop virtualisation. The new site will be fitted with thin-client terminals, a mixture of Wyse and Hewlett-Packard kit. These will support desktops virtualised using Citrix’s Xen Desktop, and applications virtualised with a mixture of Citrix, Microsoft and VMware infrastructure (although the Co-operative Group is phasing out VMware for reasons of cost).

Like many organisations, however, the Co-operative Group has accumulated hundreds of applications over the years.

In 2009, in preparation for the move to virtual desktops, it tried to find out exactly how many applications were out there. “We stopped counting after 1,400,” recalls Cawson.

Before they can be ported across on the virtual infrastructure, each one of those applications must be tested for compatibility. If they are eligible, they may have to be upgraded or the virtualisation platform may have to be configured to meet their precise requirements. Without clarity and control, that process would have slowed the project to a crawl.


The search for a way to achieve that control led Cawson to App-DNA. The US company’s software analyses its customers’ legacy applications, be they off-the-shelf or built in-house, to assess their compatibility with new platforms.

The Co-operative Group uses App-DNA to provide a traffic light system – applications are found to be ‘green’ (i.e. safe to be virtualised), ‘amber’ (i.e. there may be some problems during virtualisation) or ‘red’ (i.e. they require serious attention before virtualisation will be possible).

The organisation is now in the process of auditing applications on a department-by-department basis. So far, around 90% of its applications have been found to be eligible for virtualisation – more than Cawson expected. “Applications that were a real pain to virtualise were few and far between,” he says.

When it does come across an application that cannot be virtualised, and the department in question cannot do without it, the cost of the physical server required to support that application is charged back to the department. Interestingly, that charge includes not only the cost of operating the server, but also the fine that the Co-operative Group could incur under the CRC Energy Efficiency Scheme as a result of the server’s carbon footprint.

The process of rationalising applications has had the added advantage of identifying some unnecessary licence costs. One department had triplicate licences for Adobe’s image-processing software, for example. It has also put the Co-operative Group in good stead for its forthcoming migration to Windows 7.

This application rationalisation process has involved a lot of work, Cawson admits, but the clarity and control that it has brought in advance of the relocation project has been invaluable. “We haven’t had nearly as many headaches as we could have done,” he says.

Pete Swabey

Pete Swabey

Pete was Editor of Information Age and head of technology research for Vitesse Media plc from 2005 to 2013, before moving on to be Senior Editor and then Editorial Director at The Economist Intelligence...

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