Touring CDW: An Inside Look At A Tech Products, Services And Solutions Giant

A couple of months back (Yes, I’m tardy in reporting. Life gets in the way sometimes.), I was invited to CDW’s headquarters in Vernon Hills, IL for a “red carpet tour” of their facilities to get a firsthand look inside the computer and tech products distributor and reseller giant. The facility is located about 40 minutes outside of downtown Chicago and is a big mainstay business in the area, employing over 7,000 people worldwide with 26 facilities across North America and Canada. Formerly known as Computer Discount Warehouse, but now just CDW, the company is publicly traded on the NASDAQ under the same ticker symbol. It’s a Fortune 500 company and the founder, Michael Krasny ranks on Fortune’s list of wealthiest Americans. In short, they must be doing something right, so I darn sure took them up on the offer to visit.

CDW Headquarters

As you might expect, their HQ facility is massive at roughly 450,000 square-feet, though not as large as their Las Vegas distribution center, which is over 500K square-feet. But we were in the heart of the Midwest here and if you’ve ever met folks from the region, you might agree, there seems to be an abundance of quality, straight-shooting, down-to-earth people out in this neck of the woods. I’m not implying there aren’t elsewhere, but in my experience, a lot of Midwesterners tend to be just "good people" and the crew I met out there was no exception. This place is run like a well-oiled machine and the people that run it are true professionals.

The company caters to customers at all levels, from end users to small businesses, the enterprise, government and the healthcare industry. Since their inception, they’ve gone from a “fulfillment” only model to a full logistics and custom solutions company; what, in old school terms, is referred to as a "VAR" or Value Added Reseller. But let’s talk about the machine first because this place is just wild.

CDW Dee Dee Rollins
CDW Warehouse Distribution Team Member (Credit: CDW)
Likely not on steroids herself but the warehouse and logistics system around her is clearly juicing.

If you’ve ever been in a large industrial products warehouse, you’ve likely seen the product movement systems, conveyors, picking and packing systems. Well, take that image and give it a healthy shot of performance enhancing substance because the place is jacked. We weren’t allowed to take pictures in the facility, probably because they’ve got some proprietary systems architecture going on in there, but the place is pretty amazing. Think multiple stories of inventory racks, conveyors, robots, scanning and labeling systems, all stretching on for many football fields long. Tom Brady could throw slant and flat combinations to Edleman and Gronkowski in this place till they were all gassed and still not hit the end zone. Simply put – impressive.

Because it’s mostly all high tech product, if inventory is hanging around in this place for a month, it’s already outdated, though they do warehouse product for customers as well which would prolong shelf life. That’s just part of the story for special services though. From simple labeling to computer system imaging and dressing-up tablets and notebooks with custom etching, CDW has reinvented itself much more as a services company than ever before in their history. They average 5,000 custom configurations a day and can scale that to 7,500 if needed with a 24 hour work shift rotation. They can configure anything from full racks of servers, switches and storage for the enterprise, to top-secret government setups complete with firearms (packed by government employees since they don’t handle firearms). They've even configured systems and containers that were to be dropped from military aircraft, recovered and deployed. They had a team literally throwing servers and racks off the top of the building for a while, testing setups. Incidentally, the military configured those systems and CDW setup a secure VPN for them so they could tunnel in and set them up fully secured without civilian or company employee access. So yeah, if that’s your watermark for “we can do anything,” they probably can do it for you, test it and ship it.

CDW Enterprise Command Center
(Credit: CDW)

They also offer customers cloud and data center services and have recently setup an “Enterprise Command Center” in their Vernon, IL facility, to provide a managed 24x7x365 IT infrastructure platform and services for their customers as well.

We then took a tour of their Woodland Falls Illinois facility, affectionately called “The Zoo” because of all the caged equipment, to check out what is essentially an enterprise equipment hands-on testing and showcase center for demonstrating racks of servers, switches, UPS systems, you name it. Here we got to check out their “Technoliner” as well, which is a traveling luxury bus setup with some of the latest technologies, from HP’s Sprout “Blended Reality” 3D scanning computer, to server racks, desktops, notebooks and tablets.

CDW The Zoo
CDW's "Zoo" of caged server, storage and power management beasts - one of many rooms.

Finally, we ended the day at Microsoft’s downtown Chicago Envisioning Center, where Microsoft execs talked to their partnership with CDW and then gave us a tour of the latest Microsoft technologies, some of which aren’t even in market yet, like the Microsoft Surface Hub.

Microsoft Surfce 3 Pro
Microsoft's Surface 3 Pro - Previously reviewed here.

And then we all went indoor skydiving, just for kicks and giggles. That was a bucket list item I guess, because I sure as hell am not going to jump out of a perfectly good plane in an attempt to do the real thing any time soon. So, a big hat tip to our friends at CDW for that opportunity.

Heading back to Boston I had a new appreciation for CDW, a company that previously I’d been only vaguely familiar with, frankly, and never realized how big and capable they were. Savvy consumers, IT Pros and otherwise, probably want to check them out. I didn’t realize this initially, but they’re kind of a big deal.