A version of this article from Mason, OH-based operations consultancy Forte appeared in its July/August newsletter, DC eVolve.

“Why is it important to maintain or monitor our computer systems that operate inside a distribution center?” “If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.” “I paid all that money so that I wouldn’t have to worry about it any more.” “Why go looking for a problem when there are plenty looking for me?”

These are common sentiments when it comes to IT and system maintenance in the DC. In many regards they represent a misunderstanding that surrounds the world of information technology. Since computer systems are often put in place to solve business problems, they themselves are not seen as being vulnerable to problems: If they work today, why wouldn’t they work tomorrow?

It is actually very important to properly maintain and pay attention to your technology investment in the same way it’s important to change the oil in an automobile. True, you may be able to skip an oil change now and then without any obvious side effect, but if you neglect to do so repeatedly or for long periods of time, eventually your car will have some serious problems.

So what do you need to do to properly maintain your systems?

Software updates and maintenance releases
Chances are the provider of your system(s) offers some form of maintenance plan, not to mention software upgrades and patches. At the operating-system level, you need to be sure that the appropriate updates been applied to ensure proper levels of security. At the application level, make certain that any upgrades that will provide added features to improve performance have been installed as well. And at the network level, ensure that all virus and spam protections been kept up to date.

Data integrity and cleanliness
Applications within a DC normally collect large volumes of data for various levels of reporting. This is becoming ever more important as more businesses implement business intelligence (BI) software, which is intended to provide the user with the ability to “slice and dice” data in such a way as to uncover trends and answer complex business questions that strive to improve overall operational efficiencies. Often, data from multiple sources and for reasons that are often outside the scope of the original applications are pulled together in BI solutions. This “repurposing” of the data can lead to awareness that data are either incomplete or incorrect.

So it is important to understand how data are collected originally within the applications. You can then uncover deficiencies in process, controls, or even the base applications and determine if additional controls are necessary.

Health monitoring
A distribution center may include an enterprise resource planning (ERP) system, a warehouse management system (WMS), a warehouse control system (WCS), a labor management system (LMS), and a transportation management system (TMS), among others. Then there’s the infrastructure that they operate on, including the physical computer hardware and the network cabling, the routers, an intranet, an extranet, and switches. Lest we forget, there are the operating systems that exist on each computer and servers such as Windows, Linux, and UNIX. And finally, there are the databases or other repositories that house the collected data from all these systems.

Regardless of whether these applications are running independently or within a shared environment, and whether they are from one or multiple suppliers, they need to be maintained and continually monitored. We’ve mentioned updates and maintenance release applications as well as the monitoring of data, but what ensures that the interfaces or interdependencies are working well together? The interdependency of independent components is very often overlooked, and there are few tools available for this purpose.

When monitoring the health of the overall system you must document this complex set of interdependencies. Then you need to monitor that each element is working as expected, and if you detect a problem, that the appropriate party is notified right away.

For more on IT systems maintenance, check out the August issue of MULTICHANNEL MERCHANT.