VMware Agility and the Value of Virtual Desktop Infrastructure

Tom Parker, CIO, Avalara
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Tom Parker, CIO, Avalara

How does a rapidly growing software company located on four continents manage its workforce and project management needs effectively and efficiently? With VMware.

No one likes to think about the problem of taxes (remember that old saying about death and taxes?), but fortunately for businesses located throughout the world, twelve years ago three entrepreneurs got together to do just that. The result? Avalara, which provides a cloud-based platform for calculating transactional taxes, in real-time, for thousands of customers across the world.

Transactional taxes (sales and use tax in the United States, value-added tax, or VAT, in much of the rest of the world) are complex, ever-changing and they vary based on the products or services being bought or sold, the time of year, their source of supply and/or the buyer’s destination. Because of this continuous change, the transactional tax problem is ideal for being resolved with cloud technology. As their name implies, transactional taxes are calculated whenever a transaction occurs, whether it is business-to-business or business-to-consumer. That means Avalara’s cloud software must integrate with the hundreds of different ERP, invoicing, e-commerce, mobile commerce, point-of-sale, and other transaction-based software.

  Using VDI enables the IT team to continue to scale its own capacity without adding additional staff 

It is no surprise that Avalara has been built from the ground up to manage change effectively–and continuously. Since its founding in 2004, it has grown steadily; today, the company serves more than 20,000 customers across the US, Europe, Latin America and India. Many of Avalara’s customers are trading both domestically and internationally, so Avalara’s cloud platform must manage the real-time tax compliance challenges of a commerce transaction–wherever, whenever and however it occurs. Avalara’s CEO refers to this as the “magic moment” of commerce.

Continuous change requires tremendous agility. Avalara makes constant updates to its cloud platform, to integrate with new software partners and to accommodate an unending stream of tax rate changes, geographic jurisdictional changes, tax holidays, trade and tariff changes, and more. In fact, since inception Avalara has made more than a dozen acquisitions, primarily of small companies with special expertise or specialized tax content (or both) that have augmented Avalara’s cloud platform, enabling it to expand the scope and reach of its offering. However, integrating acquisitions presents its own set of challenges, including change management. Absorbing new IP and new teams rapidly is a part of life at Avalara.

Perhaps most important, sheer rapid growth drives its own maelstrom of continuous changes. Avalara has grown more than 30 percent per year, and that growth puts a strain on the systems, people, and processes throughout the company. While Avalara’s overall workforce continues to grow, its rate of growth is intentionally slower than overall revenue growth. Automation and smart deployment of human resources are keys to managing headcount effectively.

Avalara’s Chief Information Officer Tom Parker is a veteran of change management. Parker began his career in the U.S. Navy’s Office of Naval Intelligence, and then moved on to the National Security Agency. These were exciting, “wild west” years in the evolution of technology and its impact on productivity. Parker smiles cryptically when asked about his specific experiences (many of which were confidential), but it’s clear that the depth and breadth of his responsibilities provided excellent training for his next roles at Microsoft, where he held senior roles in both application security and in its Enterprise Application Platform business.

“While I didn’t intend it, each of my previous roles has helped to prepare me for the challenges at Avalara,” says Parker. “Throughout my career, I’ve been lucky to be at the ‘right time/right place’ for exciting moments in the evolution of technology, and these experiences have contributed to my effectiveness here at Avalara.”

Under Parker’s leadership, the IT team at Avalara is the only group that has not grown, even though the scope of its responsibilities has tripled under his tenure. He attributes the group’s productivity to smart hires and smart decision-making at all levels on the team. For example, rapid adaptability is part of each team member’s DNA. Avalara IT’s mandate is to continue to support the organization through a “lead by example” process of automate everything–one of ten guiding principles in the company’s Manifesto, or 5-year strategic plan. In addition to their “day jobs”–ensuring seamless operation of the company’s “heartbeat” systems for R&D collaboration, CRM, sales, accounting, billing and HR–at any given moment, the Avalara IT team is also responsible for managing and deploying between 20 to 30 short-and long-term change management projects at the company. Because of revenue and workforce growth, and the resulting growth in workload for the IT team, the group has had to constantly challenge itself to automate core tasks and look for technology to absorb workload increases.

That is where Avalara turned to VMware and its Virtual Desktop Infrastructure to help manage the continuous provisioning (and re-provisioning) of new, temporary, or part-time staff and consultants that are a vital part of the fabric of continuous change at Avalara.

“We have been happy, satisfied customers of VMware for many years,” said Parker. “Like many companies, Avalara uses VMware in our data center. Their rock solid reliability gave us great confidence, so it was natural that we turned to VMware for this problem, too.”

At any given moment during the year, approximately 25 percent of the Avalara workforce requires rapid provisioning. These individuals are located all across the world, making the IT onboarding process especially time-consuming, expensive, and labor-intensive. Before adopting VMware’s VDI, the IT group had to budget for approximately $2,000 in a ‘fully loaded’ laptop that included the entire core applications required for an employee. Setting up these laptops, sending them to employees in remote locations and ensuring that the employees were on-boarded were arduous, expensive efforts for the IT team. Parker and his team quickly realized that there had to be a better way.

That better way is VMware’s Virtual Desktop Infrastructure. Using VDI, the Avalara IT team can now provision an employee for a tenth of the cost, in about a fifth of the time. VDI enables Avalara IT to use the employee’s own computer, and to provision that computer remotely. This massive cost-and time-savings means that Avalara IT can provision (and de-provision) employees more rapidly and more efficiently than ever before. This means that Avalara’s myriad projects can commence more rapidly, and can be staffed more rapidly–either with internal resources or with contractors/part-time employees. Using VDI also enables the IT team to continue to scale its own capacity without adding additional staff–even as Avalara continues to grow.

“VDI has been a huge boon to my team,” says Parker. “I honestly don’t think we could continue to serve the needs of the company without VDI in place. It’s made a huge difference, and has freed up my team to continue to absorb more workload and new challenges.”

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