Beer and Unified Communications

When someone thinks of Microsoft's new unified communications (UCS) platform, I doubt the first thing that springs to mind is beer. Granted, if you're the IT manager tasked with implementing an enterprise-wide rollout of a new system like UCS, quaffing a few sudsy mugs of ale may seem like a good idea to calm your nerves. Word association exercises aside, a small brewery in Fort Collins, CO, has set out to switch their entire enterprise over to the new UC platform.

Founded in a basement in 1991, New Belgium Brewery has grown into a successful, folksy, laid-back business that prides itself on creating fine beers, having a positive working relationship with their employees and doing its part to conserve the environment. An open-book management style and employee ownership support that philosophy. And while many companies are pulping tons of lumber to issue press releases proclaiming that they're working for a better environment, New Belgium is the real deal: The company makes most (if not all) of their decisions with sustainability and conservation in mind, but has embraced the idea that combining simple, proven methods with the latest technology can be a sound strategy for running a successful, environmentally conscientious business.

Ride the Bike, Dump the Car

Here's an example: One of the first beverages produced by the brewery was Fat Tire Ale, named after the beefy, knobby tires on a cruiser bicycle. The bicycle has become the official image for the company, and employees are given one after one year of service. New Belgium encourages employees and customers alike to use bicycles as a means of transportation, decrying the impact carbon-powered vehicles are having on the environment.

As an admitted car buff and lover of many things powered by carbon-based fuels, my initial reaction to New Belgium's admonition to put down my car keys and ride a bike was one of sheepish guilt. I like to preserve the environment as much as anyone, but wouldn't the world be a poorer place without the keening roar of a gas-guzzling Corvette C6R at full throttle, hammering down the Mulsanne Straight at the 24 Hours of LeMans? Then there are rolling works of automotive artistry like the stupendous Jaguar XKR--do we really want to live in a world without cars?

My curmudgeonly skepticism (and automotive fixations) aside, New Belgium's push to get people to do more pedaling and less driving makes sound business sense. If you live within a few miles of work, why shouldn't you ride a bike? You don't have to pay for gas, and you get in shape at the same time--how can you argue with that?

The Latest in Beer Brewing Tech

That desire to use the most efficient tool for the task at hand extends to the rest of the company as well. Co-Founder Jeff Lebesch was trained as an electric engineer, and his love of technology can be seen throughout the business. Their brewing equipment is state of the art: New Belgium staffers pointed out that their equipment is more advanced than what the massive Anheuser-Busch Brewery (situated just a few miles away) uses. New Belgium is the country's first brewery to subscribe to wind energy, and they've also built their own process water treatment facility. This system recycles all of the excess water used in the brewing process, and the methane produced as a by-product is captured, piped back into the brewery and then burned to produce energy. New Belgium claims that the process allows them to power about 10% of the brewery, resulting in real cost savings and measurable resource conservation.

That philosophy extends to their IT practices. With help from Denver-based IT consultancy 3T Systems, New Belgium recently virtualized their servers for cost and energy savings and migrated from a Novell-based networking and email system to Microsoft Exchange, Microsoft Office and Active Directory infrastructure. Now they're making the jump into unified communications, replacing their existing phone system with a combination of software from Microsoft and IP phones and hardware from Cisco.

Senior Systems Administrator Travis Morrison is handling the hands-on implementation of the project, while IT Director Jay Richardson expresses admiration for the way that New Belgium has supported their forward-looking IT efforts. "While I report to the CFO," explains Richardson. "I sit on the senior management team and am responsible for how our overall IT strategy is structured--there are no obstacles to me knowing the direction of the company and getting my input heard by our senior leaders."

Richardson and Morrison are planning to roll out their new UC messaging structure within the next month or so, perhaps when remote workers travel to the New Belgium head office in Fort Collins for yearly sales meetings. Richardson explains that employees have been very supportive of the switch to the new platform, and most are eager to try out the new system.

Technology Meets Conservation

Remember my argument in defense of gas-powered vehicles? While I'm still convinced that we'll be using fossil fuels to power the bulk of our vehicles for years to come, I'm not averse to looking at alternatives. In that spirit, here's a bit of trivia for you: the overall winner of the 2007 24 Hours of LeMans was an Audi R10 TDI, powered by a clean-burning diesel engine. Like New Belgium demonstrates, technology and conservation can go hand in hand, often with spectacular results.

Maybe I need to fix that flat tire on my bike after all.

Check out the December issue of Windows IT Pro for Anne Grubb's in-depth cover story on New Belgium Brewery and their move to Microsoft's Unified Communications platform.