Founded in 1980 by Mexican immigrant Miguel Gonzalez Sr. and his family, Northgate Market boasts over 41 locations in Southern California, and differentiates itself in the highly competitive grocery business by offering an immersive in-store experience centered around authentic, fresh and prepared Mexican foods.
“Traditional grocery stores sell a lot of packaged goods, and they might have a butcher and a seafood section,” explains Harrison Lewis, Chief Information and Privacy Officer. “Our stores take the opposite approach. We have only 8 to 12 feet of packaged products, then 60 feet of fresh and prepared products. We set ourselves apart by focusing on fresh and prepared foods, and we thrive in ‘food deserts’ that major grocers have abandoned.”
Northgate prides itself in offering world-class grocery shopping experiences in underserved communities. “We deliver an in-store experience that demonstrates we value our customers’ time. Our stores are designed to engage all of the senses the moment a customer walks in the door. It’s really difficult to convey in words or online; you have to go into a store and experience it.”
That’s not to say that technology isn’t important. “Digital technologies are incredibly important to our continued success; there’s no such thing as being able to operate offline anymore,” Lewis is quick to note. “Mobility is huge; we want customers to be able to communicate with associates on the sales floor, and associates to be able to communicate with each other. We also need to be able to collect customer analytics and leverage them so that we can provide shoppers with new and exciting products and services.”
For about seven years, Northgate Market had been combining an on-premises data center with AWS and Microsoft Azure. “We were experimenting with different things, running some external workloads on AWS, and some on Azure, with internal workloads in our private cloud,” Lewis explains.
However, the company had reached a crossroads; their on-premises hardware was reaching its end of life. “I’m kind of a minimalist,” Lewis says. “I don’t care about where Northgate has been or what it has done; I always look towards the future. I ask myself, if the company were starting brand new today, what would we do? Data centers and colocations worked for us for a long time, but it seemed silly to continue to do things that way. Two to four years from now, we’d either have to buy additional capacity or go in a different direction altogether, so we may as well go in a different direction now.”
Lewis was also concerned about having to purchase more capacity than Northgate would end up needing or using, especially on the back end. “Some back-end systems don’t even offer traditional licenses anymore; everyone is moving toward a SaaS subscription model. We made a decision to go all-in on cloud.”
After evaluating AWS, Azure, and Google Cloud Platform (GCP), Northgate Market selected GCP for a number of specific reasons. Lewis quickly eliminated Azure because of Northgate’s preference for open-source solutions. “Microsoft isn’t about open source; they sell proprietary software.”
Meanwhile, Northgate had found AWS to be too impersonal. “Amazon wants volume business, which a small company like ours couldn’t give them. They saw us as inconsequential.” Lewis was also concerned about a partnership with AWS negatively impacting other business relationships down the line. “If we came across future opportunities to provide services outside of our own stores, to other retailers, we didn’t want to be in a situation where those retailers might question why we were an AWS customer. Because Amazon is branching out into so many verticals, a lot of retailers see hosting with AWS as subsidizing a competitor.”
In contrast, Lewis says Google Cloud spent time trying to understand Northgate Market as an organization. “They were willing to invest in our potential, not just who we are now as a company, but who we have the potential to become. That made a big difference.”
Lewis also liked Google Cloud’s commitment to open source and its data analytics, AI, and machine learning capabilities. “Those are core strengths for Google that AWS doesn’t have. We knew we wanted to build a data lake on BigQuery to manage our customer data; that was an important feature for us.”
Partnership with SADA
Northgate first partnered with SADA to build their data lake.
“We wanted to throw everything in it, a customer repository and everything, and we had a unique approach to managing and leveraging it. We talked to Google, and they recommended SADA. At first, it was difficult to explain what we needed to do, but SADA engaged their consulting and technical resources and delivered.”– Harrison Lewis, Chief Information and Privacy Officer, Northgate Market
Continuing their cloud transformation, Northgate decided to modernize and standardize its IT infrastructure and engaged with SADA’s team once again. To set Northgate up for a successful cloud migration, SADA performed a CloudPhysics assessment for environment discovery and supplemented it with Stratozone for application dependency mapping. The CloudPhysics assessment helped Northgate right-size its VMs for their new environment and understand compatibility in terms of the hypervisor. Northgate ended up having to upgrade VMware to make the move, “but that proved to be relatively painless,” Lewis says. “CloudPhysics gave us prerequisites for our migration. Some of our VMs had been in place for many years and needed to be right-sized. Most instances were sized down.”
Stratozone uncovered problems with both port identification and app dependencies. “We had a dependency between our warehouse management system and our dynamics ERP, and Stratozone enabled us to get a clear understanding of it. If one part remained on-prem, and the other migrated to GCP, they wouldn’t talk to each other without a Dedicated Cloud Interconnect. It was beneficial that SADA identified this early on; we knew we would need the Cloud Interconnect during the transition period, when some apps would be running on GCP and some were still on-prem.”
SADA also ensured that the entire team at Northgate knew how to make the most of their GCP deployment. “SADA was very deliberate in showing us everything and how it worked, and how to maintain and extend it moving forward. They made sure we understood how to do it ourselves. They were able to explain things in a way that didn’t intimidate our associates or make them feel like the system was replacing them, which was important to us. We value our associates. SADA showed everyone how to use GCP as a tool to do their jobs better.”
Results & benefits
Lewis and the rest of the team at Northgate Market are very pleased with their new data lake. Approximately eight years’ worth of transactions were migrated from legacy systems into the data lake. As long as the legacy systems remain operational, they commit to the data lake on an hourly basis, and all of the new developments being built out on GCP are feeding into it as well. “We now have one central place for all of our transactions, all of our structured and unstructured data, and we have the capacity and the power to analyze all of it.” Northgate has already gleaned actionable business intelligence: “We discovered some real eye-openers that have completely changed what we thought we knew about the services and products we provide and what’s relevant to our customers.”
Northgate had encountered problems with latency and geographic restrictions when running data analytics on-premise. Lewis says that since migrating to GCP, these problems have been minimized. “My head of infrastructure told me that he used to get a lot of alerts, and they’ve stopped now. He brought this up without me asking him, which I think is really interesting.”
Lewis estimates that Northgate is saving $300,000 annually over continuing to use data centers. “We were probably looking at a capital outlay of $1.5 to $1.8 million if we’d continued in data centers. Because we switched to GCP, we paid for the migration, and that’s it.”
“Prior to migrating, we were using over 500 servers, which was crazy,” says Lewis. “Plus, we were paying for licenses and additional costs while running two environments.” Now, the company runs only 150 servers.
Lewis sees a bright future for both GCP and SADA at Northgate Market. “We’ve got a lot planned with GCP. It’s offering us a strategic advantage over other companies, especially companies that are using other cloud platforms. I’m really excited about the BigQuery data catalog. I’ve tried on probably five different occasions to create and maintain a data catalog, but I was never successful. A data catalog is an inherent part of BigQuery, which is huge.”
Google makes it clear, Lewis says, that they are investing in the future. “They demonstrated that by making an effort to understand our potential and helping us to reach it. That’s what differentiates Google, and it’s only part of what differentiates SADA. One of the special things about SADA is that they never second-guessed their capabilities. They kept digging in and were very persistent. Even when things got hectic, they assured us that we were going to get through this, figure it out, and pop out on the other side.”