Lessons from Unilever’s massive cloud migration

Moving more than 400 household brands over to the cloud is bound to be easier said than done. What can other companies learn from Unilever’s experience of carrying out a massive migration?

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In one of the largest cloud migrations ever seen, the global consumer goods company Unilever recently announced that it has gone all-in, having migrated all of its more than 400 household brands to Microsoft’s Azure cloud platform.

According to Unilever, the move should help to accelerate product launches, enhance customer service and improve operational efficiency. It will also help its sustainability efforts, by curbing carbon emissions from its own tech stack.

“There are very few companies of our size and legacy that can claim this level of cloud implementation,” said Steve McCrystal, Unilever’s chief enterprise and technology officer. “We have confidence that we’re set on the right course and that this will deliver a step change in speed and flexibility.”

And Unilever is not alone. As more businesses strive to modernise their technology, large-scale cloud migrations are becoming more commonplace. But few companies ever reach Unilever’s scale, and even fewer plump for an overhaul of their data storage strategy. 

This all makes this particular cloud migration project quite remarkable, says Dean Clark, CTO at global digital transformation provider GFT. “While firms in other industries have accomplished similar cloud migrations – such as Capital One’s migration of 8,000 apps, and a similarly large ongoing Google Cloud undertaking by Deutsche Bank – Unilever’s project stands out as especially impressive in the consumer goods industry,” he says.

So, what can other companies weighing up their own digital transformations learn from Unilever’s experience of doing it at such massive scale?

The case for going all-in on cloud

One key thing to remember here is that the Unilever project began back in 2019. The latest announcement represents just the most recent phase of a lengthy digital transformation. 

Cloud is now a must-have for any company serious about digital transformation

Even so, the scale and speed of the move still make it stand out from the crowd. After all, with its infrastructure supporting more than 400 consumer brands and being used by more than 3 billion people daily, this was no small undertaking.

Support for the migration came from Accenture. Nicole van Det, senior managing director and Unilever’s global account lead at Accenture, believes that going ‘all-in’ on cloud technology is now an essential requirement for consumer goods companies.

“Whether it’s gaining access to flexible and scalable infrastructure, accelerating innovation across the business and with partners, curbing carbon emissions, or transforming the use of customer analytics and artificial intelligence, cloud is now a must-have for any company serious about digital transformation,” she says.

Watch the cost of cloud

But Unilever’s wholesale move to the cloud comes at a time when other firms are arguing in favour of saving money by shifting their IT back on-premises, or at least maintaining a hybrid IT model. In October, for instance, David Heinemeier Hansson, CTO of project management firm Basecamp, announced in a blog post that the firm would be turning its back on the cloud, thanks in part to a bill reaching $3.2m (£2.6m) a year.

Nevertheless, McCrystal says that Unilever is unwavering in its commitment to the cloud, and contends that it is driving significant cost savings. These are most apparent across Unilever’s network and support structures and by selling the data centres it no longer needs. “The cloud allows us to only pay for server capacity when we need it,” he says. “We have been able to put a lot of servers into standby when they are not in use.”

Geoff Barnett, head of global multi-cloud advisory at IT consultancy Crayon, says that some companies may well look to shift their large-scale IT deployments back to on-premises, but that these firms will generally be those which have built their applications and services in a way that uses simple building blocks that are similar across all their software.

“Adopting an on-premises environment can make sense in this case, because the business is able to standardise around a single consistent platform that can be maintained with a high degree of automation and a small number of people,” he explains.

IT cost optimisation has never been a higher priority. That means the efficiencies of cloud technologies are increasingly appealing

“On the other hand, when a business is buying in a lot of commercial off-the-shelf software that has different dependencies in terms of platforms and other components, or when a business has developed software using different platforms, frameworks and architectures, the cost of supporting this variety of different needs can often be more easily met when the management of some of these platforms can be handled by the cloud provider.”

Barnett adds that organisations are now under significant pressure to do more with less, due to the tough macroeconomic environment. “IT cost optimisation has never been a higher priority, with 90% of businesses recently labelling it as such. Businesses are reassessing where and how they spend their money, and that means the efficiencies and economic benefits of cloud technologies are becoming increasingly appealing. In fact, 56% of businesses globally are spending more than $1m per year on the public cloud alone.”

Sell your cloud vision to the whole team

Of course, any cloud migration – especially one for an organisation that has as much data as Unilever – will face challenges. Staff may lack certain key skills required to support the design and migration of key processes to the cloud, says GFT’s Clark. Selecting the right partner can help here, as they may offer tailored training to help staff learn vital cloud skills.

Similarly, businesses may find themselves needing to reprogramme staff to work in a new way, says Barnett. This is particularly true within the parts of the organisation that work directly on supporting or developing applications and IT services.

McCrystal maintains, however, that “aligning IT and the business around the same vision and objectives provided coherence and clarity throughout our cloud journey”. He says that by working with a mix of internal teams, Accenture and Microsoft, Unilever has “created an environment to bring out the best of everyone working on the project”. 

“This meant being mindful of different cultures, time zones, ways of working and technologies. This, combined with having a single common goal across the whole of Unilever enabled incident-free, on-time and in-budget delivery, landing industry-leading success.”

What could be easier, right?