Sometimes one size does fit all.

That’s true in the case of audio specialist Sonos, which developed a universal IT stack that could be used by its 1,200 employees, manufacturing partners, and engineers scattered in 15 locations across the globe.

The innovation, dubbed “IT in a Box,” was developed in October 2020, just as CIO Ruth Sleeter took the helm, and though it was designed for more general use it was a panacea for the Sonos IT’s pandemic response. 

Also known informally as “Sonos Homes,” the solution enabled a scalable and expedient way to build a Sonos office environment in areas where no office exists. The project has earned Sonos a CIO 100 Award for IT leadership and innovation.

Sleeter credits the company’s “very virtual” and employee-centric corporate culture with the project’s inception at a time when COVID-19 was forcing employees out of physical offices worldwide.

“We believed in a very flexible, diversified workforce and were employee-centric well before the pandemic hit in order to get the right talent in the right places,” says Sleeter, noting that employers often forget, for example, that recent college graduates often share an apartment with several others and needed a solution that would work in tight areas as well as big manufacturing plants. “Even pre-pandemic, we were at the forefront of this work experience and used video and Zoom and Teams.”

Plans for IT in a Box began in mid-2020 when it became clear Sonos engineers needed a more dependable work environment to collaborate with external design and manufacturing partners — not relying on partners’ infrastructure, such as “guest wifi,” which sometimes proved unreliable and a security risk, according to the company.

The project got a big push with Sleeter’s arrival.

“One of the biggest impacts that I can have as a CIO is to drive culture through technology that leads to great innovation,” she says.

“We continue to raise our pace and our innovation around collaboration. We realized that there is a huge need to think globally about that and not to get super mired in our own experiences through the pandemic,” Sleeter adds. “We really look to try to solve this problem across our entire technology stack and one of the things that we ended up with was with this very portable infrastructure.”

A network-centric solution

Sonos’ IT in a Box consists of three components: a secured network, robust collaboration tools, and compute power for engineers designing the company’s high-end audio and entertainment gear.

Wide availability of components, particularly in an era of supply-chain fiascos, was a key design element for a solution that would be used not only by employees but also by third-party partners at large independent manufacturing sites globally, Sleeter says.

The network layer is the most unique aspect of the solution, according to Sonos, and was designed to ensure that any employee and partner from any location globally could confidently access the corporate platform.

The network, for example, is comprised of low-cost Meraki routers and access points that enable Sonos IT to manage and configure the installation from anywhere in the world using the Cisco Meraki management portal. This equipment is readily available from local vendors to allow for fast implementation, according to the company.

“We looked at the technology stack from a network perspective first, one that we can replicate and expand whether employees are working in a small location or a big office,” Sleeter says. “It’s perfectly adaptable. It can work for two people in a room, a mobile solution that people carry with them, or a full installation in a very big room with 10 seats and a big table. We made it very elastic and very scalable.”

Jim Hauser, senior director of cloud infrastructure and operations at Sonos, says the magic of the solution is in its simplicity. Prepackaging a company-specific IT stack with components that are widely available ensures that Sonos IT eliminates common communication snags that occur between employees and partner engineers at different locations globally.

It also guarantees access to its components for engineers or designers who may be in very remote locations with limited access to technology.

“In North America, we have a little bit of a blessing that in many cases, we have big spaces to work if we’re not in an office. But when you go outside of this very small region, in the rest of the world, it’s not always the case,” Hauser says. “A lot of our employees really value the fact that everybody has the exact same experiences if they’re walking into someone’s office here in Seattle or anywhere else in the world.”

The corporation, which competes with Bose and Bang & Olufsen, is headquartered in Santa Barbara, Calif., and has many offices in the US and Europe. But most of its employees, designers, and engineers are scattered across the globe and require great flexibility and dependability in order to work as a team.

“We could be working with any type of partner [such as] an installation partner, an LSP, a contract manufacturer, a [retail] store even, and any location that pops up in which we need to put an engineer in,” Sleeter says. “We deploy this, and again that can be anywhere in the globe at any point, and they’re automatically connected into our Sonos network.”

Ging Yong Tan, senior business development manager at Pentech, an IT partner that supports Sonos’ manufacturing facilities in Malaysia, sees the solution as unique in the industry.

“The new IT infrastructure from Sonos has given the company’s manufacturing partners a convenient way to collaborate with Sonos employees around the world. I don’t see many companies set up their own collaboration infrastructure in a manufacturing facility. This solution offers time savings and productivity improvements for both the manufacturing team and my IT team which supports them,” he says.

The future of work, indeed.

CIO 100, Collaboration Software, Networking