Putting Food on Families' Tables: HPE SimpliVity and Land O'Lakes Are Shaping the Future of Agriculture

HPE SimpliVity

You may know us for our butter, but Land O'Lakes is much more than that. We’re a cooperative owned by farmers and local agricultural retailers across the United States. Our other brands include Purina Animal Nutrition, the renowned provider of feed for pets and livestock, and WinField United, a leading supplier of seed and crop protection products, plant nutrients, and technology products that help farmers maximize land usage.

Our Land O'Lakes SUSTAIN division leverages technology to help farmers and agricultural retailers drive productivity while improving environmental outcomes. The challenge of the future is this: Our farmers have to grow more food to feed a growing population, and they have to double food production by 2050 using increasingly less land. That’s no easy task, but it’s an area where technology can help. As Solutions Architect, that’s an exciting opportunity for my team. 

IT Infrastructure Serving Farmers

The members of our co-op work hard to put food on families' tables, and our IT team works behind the scenes to provide the infrastructure that drives our vision.

Our IT infrastructure powers Land O'Lakes' supply chain. We have a pilot project with Uber Freight that matches suppliers with available transport in real time. Our feed formulation sites use IT to automate the process of putting vitamins into pet food and livestock feed, thus ensuring that animals get the right nutrition to stay healthy.

Our data centers power WinField United's R7 tool. It uses satellite imagery and soil samples to determine crop yields, nutrient levels, and fertilization requirements. We are harnessing the power of analytics to help farmers make the best use of their lands.

When people hear we're a farmers' co-op, they think we're small, slow, and relatively low-tech. Nothing could be further from the truth. Land O'Lakes has been expanding through an aggressive program of mergers and acquisitions.

To control IT costs, increase efficiencies, and streamline processes, we've had to consolidate data centers, switch off duplicate systems and apps, and integrate newly acquired companies into our ERP system. 

Thinking Big and Going Small

The best way to effect this transition was to think big and go small, and the smartest solution was hyperconvergence. Virtualizing aging servers and strategically moving systems and apps off-premises to the cloud, or a central data center, allowed us to provide high-availability compute and storage capacity to every one of our sites while removing performance bottlenecks and reducing costs.

Hyperconvergence can help your company go big, while your IT goes small.

In many ways, hyperconverged architecture creates a datacenter-in-a-box scenario. You retire rack-after-rack of servers and hard drives, rip out messes of cables, and replace all this equipment with easy-to-install-and-manage hyperconverged modules that combine storage, compute, and cloud connectivity.

Land O'Lakes adopted this approach to our data centers about five years ago. We asked our peers and partners for their recommendations and then held a bake-off to see what the biggest names could do. HPE SimpliVity came out on top. At the time, it was just called SimpliVity, since we made our selection before HPE acquired the company. And I am happy to say that the merger only made things better.

HPE SimpliVity offered everything we were seeking. It cost less than the competition and provided the small footprint we needed. Because we were moving so much capacity to our corporate data center, we needed less power but higher availability at our other on-site data centers. HPE SimpliVity was the only vendor that offered a two-node system with a 10-GigaBit cross-connection that didn't require a separate switch.

HPE SimpliVity also offered a sole vendor on-site backup and disaster recovery solution that is built-in, which was a critical functionality for some of our more remote rural locations. In many parts of the country, there is no high-speed infrastructure. In the past, we had to back up from tape using landlines. I cringe when I think about how cumbersome that was.

Expanding High Availability Everywhere

HPE SimpliVity proved to be a set-it-and-forget-it solution. In the five years since we’ve implemented HPE SimpliVity, we haven’t experienced any outages. The only issues we encountered were not HPE SimpliVity-related and involved replacing a failing hard drive and a defective network controller card.

While our initial use case was data center consolidation, I started to see the opportunity for much more. The high availability of our systems running on HPE SimpliVity made me realize it could be the perfect fit for our manufacturing facilities. We didn’t have major issues with downtime, but this decision was about being proactive. 

Don’t wait for outages. Be proactive and build resilient IT infrastructure before the worst happens.

I pitched HPE SimpliVity by touting its built-in high availability and disaster recovery features. I showed our executive team the financial impact of a single outage versus the cost of installing high-availability hyperconverged infrastructure with robust DR at our production sites. When they saw that hyperconvergence was the most cost-effective approach in the long term, they gave me the go-ahead.

Our HPE SimpliVity nodes were also robust enough for the most challenging environments. The data centers in our dairy operations are pristine, but the same is not true at our feed facilities. Those latter data centers may look clean, but when you step inside, you feel like you're walking on sandpaper because there's a massive buildup of dust.

I hope that HPE will bring some of the environmental sealing that it offers on its industrial-strength servers to HPE SimpliVity in the future, but their current nodes have already proven to be the right solution for our manufacturing sites. HPE SimpliVity now powers everything from cookers to warehousing and shipping software. If any of these systems go down, we're not only looking at production stoppages, but potential errors in our inventory levels, as well as a cascade effect on our transport schedule.

Less Is More

Another big win was the reduction in storage. HPE SimpliVity's always-on, inline data deduplication features have yielded a 22.5:1 data efficiency ratio. We are using less space and faster all-flash-based systems. We're spending less money and getting cutting-edge storage that accelerates our applications, our ERP, and all our databases.

As I mentioned at the start, Land O' Lakes adopted the SimpliVity infrastructure before the HPE acquisition. At the time, the platform was somewhat hardware agnostic, but now you can manage your hardware and software from a single tool, and this opens up the possibility of a magic bullet scenario. With the push of a button, we can spin up virtual machines, install applications, and restore servers from automated backups.

We now spend minutes instead of hours on routine IT management and maintenance tasks, which frees us to look at the big picture and at what's coming next. A current concern is finding the right balance between on-premise and cloud-based infrastructure. We are also exploring self-healing automated networks and the HPE InfoSight platform. I’m excited by what’s coming next. 

Feeding Future Generations

Our ultimate goal as IT professionals is to help the members of the Land O'Lakes co-op manufacture superior products and ship them to their customers on time, but this is only a short-term goal. In the long term, we want to ensure sustainability and growth and to make farmers' lives easier.

Feeding humanity is one of the greatest challenges of our time. We have to innovate to make sure that no one goes hungry, that land remains viable, and that the environment is preserved for future generations. It’s a big task, but I think we’re better prepared for it than ever before.