CIO, ERBER Group
Gerhard Grün graduated from the HTL (Secondary College of Engineering) for Communications Engineering and gained his first computer experience with the user-port interface of the Commodore 64. In 1990, he began his career as a service technician for private branch exchange systems. In 1992, he transferred to Perlmooser Zementwerke as system administrator. Five years later, he went to IBM as IT specialist, but another five years on, Big Blue began its transformation into a general contractor and started cutting jobs in Austria. In search of a new employer, Grün came across Erber AG, which matched his experience and ambitions perfectly. Shortly thereafter he became head of IT at the Herzogenburg manufacturer of internationally renowned feed additive brand Biomin.
Over the past 11 years, he has accompanied the initially only nationally active company with 200 employees on its path to a global enterprise with 1,200 employees, and is now responsible for Business Projects along with IT and IT strategy.
Erber Group is a leading global corporation in the field of feed and food safety, with a focus on natural feed additives, feed and food analysis, and plant protection. Headquartered in Lower Austria (Herzogenburg, Tulln), it generated a revenue of more than EUR 200 million during the fiscal year 2013. Erber Group comprises Biomin Holding, Romer Labs Holding, Sanphar Holding, Erber Future Business GmbH and their subsidiaries bio-ferm GmbH and Mitterecker GmbH. Including its distribution partners, the group is active in more than 100 countries. Its international orientation and in-house research and development activity are essential success factors ensuring its continued growth.
Erber group views itself as an expert organization, and is world leader in its original core business area of mycotoxin deactivation. The active in-house research and development department provides the foundation for development of innovative and customer-oriented solutions, supported in particular by joint projects with renowned universities and research institutions.
The company was founded in 1983 as “Biomin GmbH” by Erich and Margarete Erber in Pottenbrunn, Lower Austria, and remains a family-run business to this day. Erber Group’s 1,500 employees in 15 production facilities and 60 distribution units worldwide supply customers in more than 100 countries with innovative and sustainable solutions to secure the availability and quality of feed and food for a constantly growing world population.
With the construction of their new headquarters (Erber Campus) in Getzersdorf, the owners have recently shown their commitment to Austria as a business location. They set great store by sustainable policy and corporate governance.
Movie with Gerhard Grün
The Erber Group Cloud Strategy
At Austrian companies, cloud services are still not a common part of the general IT strategy as compared to other EU countries. Only one in eight enterprises uses the benefits of cloud computing to increase productivity and development potential and focus more intensively on its core business. Erber Group, a globally active Austrian feed and food company, recognized the trend early and began sourcing certain services from the cloud long ago. The key topics for CIO Gerhard Grün are networking and collaboration.
Companies’ IT resources are increasingly being migrated into the cloud, since it offers them the opportunity to source data and applications cost-effectively while meeting strict compliance requirements. Austria is considered somewhat of a straggler by international comparison regarding the use of cloud computing, however. Only one in eight companies uses a paid-for cloud service. The most likely enterprises to be open-minded about these new IT services (24 %) are larger businesses with 250 or more employees, as documented by a 2014 survey by Statistics Austria. Most companies – more than half of them, to be precise – are hitherto using cloud services only for data storage, e.g. for files and emails. Around one-third of cloud customers employ office software services. At smaller businesses, cloud services are hardly in use: Nine out of ten companies with 50 employees or less do not rely on paid-for data outsourcing. Half of this group names security risks as their reason for holding back, while 43 percent cite insufficient knowledge.
Shortcomings and preconceptions like these are common in Austria and severely restrict many enterprises in their productivity and ability to develop. For according to IDC analysts, the so-called “3rd platform” within IT (built on the pillars of the cloud, mobility, and social and big data) is currently entering a key phase described as the “innovation stage” and characterized by a veritable explosion in innovations and new technologies (innovation accelerators). Companies missing out on this development will face a high probability of being pushed out of the market in the coming years, says Tobias Höllwarth, IT expert and head of EuroCloud Austria.
But even in Austria, there are a number of perspicacious businesses and trailblazers who have long since recognized the trendsetting significance of innovation accelerators like cloud computing. One of these pioneers is Erber Group, a globally active enterprise headquartered in Austria that develops and produces sustainable additives and analysis tools for the agriculture, feed and food industries in its four divisions Biomin, Romer Labs, Sanphar and Future. IT is a top priority for Erber Group, and the key focal points are networking and collaboration. CIO Gerhard Grün, responsible for business projects besides the group’s IT and associated strategy, says: “When we implement a new technology like ‘virtual servers’, we are eager to call in support for the development. We watch closely, and when everything is up and running, we take it from there. Smaller issues can be solved internally; for bigger problems, we get help.” Grün reports directly to the head of personnel, IT and processes, receives direct information in various boards and is therefore able to present new possibilities effectively. “The advantage of a family-run business is that decisions are made quickly. There is a strong bond of trust, and that accelerates many processes,” he explains.
Outsourcing on Shared Platforms
In contrast to many other Austrian enterprises, Erber Group has already been engaging with cloud computing for some time. By way of example, Grün mentions the hosting of the company’s website, a recruiting platform, a file sharing service and the spam filter as SaaS (Software as a Service). Preparations are currently underway to operate the ERP system in the cloud as IaaS (Infrastructure as a Service). “After that, we will think about other services like the email gateway and collaboration,” the CIO says.
“For me, the cloud means outsourcing on shared platforms and brings new opportunities. I have recently been delving deeper into the topic to evaluate these new possibilities in connection with the construction of the server room at the new Erber Campus.” The requirements regarding data are extremely varied: Some require fast and secure access to standardized contents, some need to be more dynamic and flexible, yet still low-cost. According to Grün, “building a single data centre for all these requirements would mean having to invest in the common multiple. Therefore, we decided to take services from the cloud into consideration. The resulting cloud strategy for our company now aims to outsource the two extremes fast/secure/fixed and inexpensive/dynamic as IaaS, and host the mixed centre of the spectrum ourselves.”
Grün also states the following regarding the cloud strategy: “An important aspect is the definition of how important specific data are to us. If they need to be available 24/7, our in-house infrastructure is insufficient and we will need an external provider. The opposite case are data that are very important and need to be safeguarded, but do not have to permanently available.”
Three Fundamental Cloud Areas
In principle, Grün divides cloud computing into three areas: “The private cloud, where you host your services yourself and therefore have to manage and pay for the infrastructure. The public cloud, e.g. with modular self-service portals, which has the disadvantage of frequently very rigid standardization. And finally the domestic cloud, which is served by local providers. They combine an understanding for local security requirements with the flexibility to respond to my individual needs. This allows me to combine local services or shared platforms with data storage or a local server where I can install my private firewall to allow networking.”
IT technology at Erber Group is currently dominated by a central ERP application facilitating demand-oriented planning and control of enterprise resources (capital, personnel, material, equipment, IT systems, inventory and logistics). “Our branch offices access it online via terminal clients,” the CIO explains. If a connection cannot be established, employees have to find other ways of using their time efficiently – in part due to time zone constraints: “We are currently unable to offer 24-hour support,” Grün says. “Our branch offices generally comprise around ten employees per location – sometimes only two or three, but ranging up to the largest plants with 30, 50 or, in Brazil, even 100 employees.” The technical conditions are often suboptimal, however: “In Brazil, the Internet cable is mounted on wooden pylons,” the IT manager says, “and now that copper prices are high, if thieves come and burn down the pylons to get at the cable, we won’t be able to connect to our plant. We operate straight off the pure Internet there, meaning there is no quality of service clause or such. We simply have to try to achieve decent connections with inexpensive and simple technologies.”
Availability and Independence
Grün’s second IT focus consists in connecting the staff scattered around the globe and ensuring close cooperation (e.g. through the use of social media). In doing so, he is trying to expand the existing environments – including, if necessary, the use of third-party tools: “All while taking care to avoid interfaces and simplifying where possible – with a view to homogenization and standardization,” says the CIO. Real-time information plays a subordinate role for Erber Group: “Our business model is not very time-critical.” What is important, however, is well-functioning storage technology. Grün’s experience so far is that “the more systems I have running within the virtual concept, the better my safeguarding against failure and the more resources I can use. Thus our appetite has grown as we have gone along; and it certainly has been good for business.”
The CIO expects the future increased use of cloud computing to provide high availability. And in that context, power supply is a significant factor: “Appropriate provision requires large diesel generators and massive batteries for uninterrupted power supply.” Since the new Erber Campus is also being designed as an economic and visual showcase project, the use of diesel generators is a subject of discussion – especially in regard to their maintenance. The alternative: Using cloud providers who already have the requisite infrastructures.
Last but not least, the topic of independence plays a significant role in all of these considerations: “It is important to me that we also have our own data centre,” Grün states, “because I want to retain a certain level of independence for important company data. And that means we need internal resources to assume that responsibility.” In this context, the CIO also emphasizes the distinction between IaaS and SaaS: “SaaS offers more service, but simultaneously requires more standardization and entails a certain dependency in terms of versioning and data access. With IaaS, I have more freedom of design, but I also have to manage my solution more intensively.”
Generalists in a Participative IT Culture
According to Grün, there is no rigid policy at Erber Group for the integration of IT-related tools (including cloud services), but instead an active culture prompting targeted and sensible application by the staff. “Open dialogue, trust and good services reinforce this culture,” says the CIO. It should make no difference for the staff of the individual specialist departments whether a service is hosted internally or externally. “That’s why it is important to always get IT involved so that the best possible system is used and any required interfaces are provided.”
In order to meet these and future requirements, employees in the IT area should primarily be generalists “with a desire for individual responsibility,” Grün argues. He has hitherto not sent his staff to any IT training courses, only to courses for personality development. “To a degree, my staff are all project leaders who know the company and the technology we use.” The challenge, says the CIO, is to correctly recognize the demand, find the right solutions for it and implement and operate them together with the provider and the respective specialist departments. “Whether and how much technology we handle ourselves differs from project to project.”
“Outsourcing on shared platforms brings new opportunities”
Cloud computing is not in widespread use among Austrian companies. Only one in eight enterprises uses the benefits of cloud services to increase productivity and expand development opportunities. Erber Group on the other hand, a globally active company in the feed and food industries, has long since integrated the cloud into its IT strategy, especially in the areas of networking and collaboration. And its ERP system is scheduled to be operated as IaaS in the cloud very soon. CIO Gerhard Grün explains to KURIER what requirements the cloud has to meet, and how to provide orientation to employees without a policy.
KURIER: In what way are you involved with cloud computing?
We have been engaging with the cloud for a long time. We are currently building a new campus, and in this context it was important to consider what to do with our data. In terms of data centres, I am now planning to have certain services operated externally. This has to do with the topic of security, which is probably better dealt with by others – not least in regard to our new, somewhat exposed location. Due to our global orientation, networking is another issue: Most of the users of our ERP system are already located outside of Austria, and it therefore makes sense to reduce distances in terms of data connections.
What requirements does cloud computing have to meet for you in this context?
There are different requirements regarding the data involved – fast, secure, inexpensive, dynamic, but also fixed or standardized. Not all data need the same level of availability. If I were to design a data centre for myself, I would first try to determine the common multiple of all these requirements, including availability. But that would lead to higher costs. That’s why I decided to take specific cloud services into consideration. Now the issue is to divide out the data that require high availability and migrate them to the cloud. The same applies to data that are equally important to us, but do not need such high availability.
Have you already developed a cloud strategy for your company that defines the path into the cloud over the next few years?
The bottom line of our cloud strategy is to outsource the two extremes fast/secure/fixed and inexpensive/dynamic as IaaS (Infrastructure as a Service) while hosting the mixed centre of the spectrum ourselves. I like to separate the cloud into three areas: the private cloud, where you host your own services and accordingly have to manage and pay for the infrastructure; the public cloud, e.g. with modular self-service portals, has the disadvantage of frequently rather rigid standardization. If we need specific services or flexibility, it is impossible for us as an individual medium-sized business to get individuality without excessive costs. The third area is the domestic cloud serviced by local providers. These combine an understanding for local security requirements with the flexibility to respond to my individual needs.
Can you outline the advantages this domestic cloud provides you with?
For example, I can combine local services or shared platforms with data storage or a local server where I can install my private firewall to allow networking. Such adaptations also entail certain costs with a domestic cloud provider, of course, but here they are justified because these providers can address my individual needs. What is more, I have the option of visiting a local provider to discuss potential new requirements in person, or to quickly bring data into the domestic cloud or take it out on physical media.
What cloud services are you already using at your company?
We operate our website, the recruiting platform, a file sharing service and the spam filter as SaaS (Software as a Service) in the cloud. And we are currently preparing to migrate our ERP system to an IaaS cloud service. After that, we will think about other services like the email gateway and collaboration. To me, the cloud is outsourcing on shared platforms and brings new opportunities. I am currently delving deeper into the topic to examine these new possibilities in connection with the construction of the server room at the new Erber Campus.
Where do you see the essential differences between SaaS und IaaS in regard to the cloud?
The difference is that with SaaS, I consign my data to a provider’s infrastructure and have access only via interfaces. It is important to guarantee data usage and security in this context. We draw a backup about once a month in order to have the data available in-house if needed. IaaS offers more possibilities in terms of access, and that makes me willing to migrate our ERP system into the cloud as well – because I have that access and the possibility to withdraw my data whenever I want to.
How do you react to the frequently voiced concerns about cloud computing?
Irrespective of cloud computing, we will need to categorize data in future. And if we have categorized data, we will be able to assess the corresponding risks and decide who to entrust with our data. It does not take a separate policy to ensure that the individual specialist departments know in what forms cloud computing is sensible – what we need is a corporate culture that causes employees to involve us in everything to do with IT and IT-related tools and services. Open dialogue, trust and good services reinforce this culture.
How do you ensure that individual employees have the required know-how to handle cloud computing effectively?
It should make no difference for the staff of the individual specialist departments whether a service is hosted internally or externally. That’s why it is important to always get IT involved so that the best possible system is used and any required interfaces are provided.
What is the requirement profile for new IT employees enabling them to properly handle future IT-specific requirements?
We need generalists with a desire for individual responsibility. So far, I have not sent my employees to any IT training courses, but instead to personality development courses. To a degree, my staff are all project leaders who know the company and the technology we use. The challenge is to correctly recognize the demand, find the right solutions for it, and implement and operate those solutions together with the provider and the respective specialist departments. How much technology we provide ourselves and how much we source from the outside differs from project to project.
How do you verify the sufficient quality of a potential cloud service?
Besides the SLAs (Service Level Agreements), it is also essential to have an access/exit scenario. The crucial question going in is: How important are the data to the company and how easily can I get them back into the company cleanly? After that come topics like security and interfaces. Once all of these points are settled, aspects like functionality or price will determine whether we source a service from the cloud.