By now everyone knows the importance of performing routine checks of the smoke alarms in his home twice a year. So too you should be conducting periodic maintenance checks on your information technology systems within the distribution center.

But just as many people do with their smoke detectors, many companies let back-end IT maintenance slide until a problem occurs. Small and midsize companies in particular say they lack the resources to employ an IT staffer to handle tasks such as these.

“Most companies don’t want to invest internally in IT, and they rely on their systems vendor, and when they do, they are often disappointed,” says Ernie Schell, director of Ventnor, NJ-based consultancy Marketing Systems Analysis.

And while keeping your smoke detectors working generally requires fresh batteries at the most, maintaining IT systems within the distribution center is more complex. Applications operating within a DC including 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). Then there’s the infrastructure itself, including the computer hardware, network cabling, routers, switches…

“With the ability to connect operational output — your WCS — to product mix (WMS) or customer type (ERP) or shipping method (TMS) or labor cost (LMS), we can start to give management the tools they need to better plan the business,” says Tom Lehmkuhl, chief technology officer for Mason, OH-based supply chain consultancy Forte. “This ‘repurposing’ of the data, however, can lead to an awareness that the data may be either incomplete or incorrect. For this reason it is important to understand how data is collected originally within the various applications. With this understanding one can uncover deficiencies in process, controls, or even the base applications. Once discovered, it may become important to place additional controls within the process of analyzing the base data for business intelligence application.”

This sort of integration of systems and sharing of data illustrates why performing routine maintenance checks is vital: Left unchecked, a small problem in one area is likely to grow into a massive dilemma that could damage the entire system.

There’s a vast misunderstanding that surrounds the world of information technology, says Lehmkuhl. “Since computer systems are often put in place to solve business problems, they themselves are not seen as being vulnerable to having problems,” he says. “After all if they work today, why wouldn’t they work tomorrow?”

Lehmkuhl likens back-end IT maintenance to car maintenance: “You may be able to skip an oil change now and then without any obvious side affect, but if neglected repeatedly or for long periods of time, serious problems will eventually occur.”

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

Keep up on software updates and maintenance releases

Chances are your systems provider offers some form of maintenance plan. Generally experts recommend evaluating this closely from a number of perspectives. For example, at the operating system level, have the appropriate updates been applied to ensure proper levels of security? At the application levels, have upgrades been installed that will provided added features that will continue to improve the performance and business improvements expected? At the network level, have virus and spam protection been kept up to date, and has new Internet connectivity been introduced?

“Marketers don’t pay enough attention to the upgrades from the software manufacturers that have upgrades for features and functions,” Lehmkuhl says. As a result, most marketers end up using far less of their system’s capacity — by some estimates, less than 50% of capability.

Software providers continually release bug fixes (all software has bugs — it’s just that some bugs are more evident than others), performance enhancements, security improvements, and other types of patches with updates such as government mandates, retail compliance, carrier requirements/changes, and shipping label changes. If you’ve encountered a program snafu, you may have created a costly work-around when all you needed to do was download the latest upgrade of the software.

Some IT pros deliberately avoid installing software upgrades and maintenance releases for fear that they may “break” a custom component of an application. To that end, it is important to weigh the value of upgrades against potential problems that may occur and to coordinate with your supplier. The best practice approach, Lehmkuhl says, is to review the upgrades and any existing customization in detail with the vendor and, depending on the extent of the upgrade, test the program before installing the upgrades.

Monitor system health

The applications that operate within a DC may be running independently on individual systems or within a shared environment. They may have been provided from one supplier, or you might have chosen a best-of-breed approach. You may have highly specialized departments and users who work only on their part of the system, or you may have implemented a matrix approach were everyone knows pieces of each system. “Regardless,” Lehmkuhl says, “there is a lot of stuff that needs to be maintained and continually monitored.”

Typically there are tools for each component dedicated to ensuring that that it is running well. For example, a database management system may include a maintenance plan that verifies the integrity of the data and indexes and even repositions data for more efficient access.

Set up purging and archiving routines to run automatically so that you keep only the mandatory amount of data in production environments, thereby increasing available disk space and system performance. Don’t toss out all the nonmandatory data, however; save it to a separate disk or data center for recordkeeping and tracking purposes.

Back up your system

In addition to saving nonessential data for tracking purposes, Eric Lamphier, director of product management for Atlanta-based WMS provider Manhattan Associates, says you should be sure to set up mirroring, failover, and fault-tolerant system configurations to reduce or eliminate the risk of downtime when faced with hardware failures and/or natural disasters.

Mirroring is basically copying data onto a backup in case the primary source fails or becomes corrupt. A failover solution automatically transfers operations from a failed system component to a similar or redundant component to ensure that there’s no discontinuation of operations. A fault-tolerant system — often used in reference to disk configurations — is built so that if one element fails, data can be accessed from another element without having to resort to the backup disk or system.

Huntingburg, IN-based Touch of Class, for instance, backs up or mirrors its data within each server on a daily basis, says Gary Bell, vice president of information systems for the home decor and bedding cataloger.

“It’s good computing practice. You don’t install a server without having data mirrored across more than one drive,” Bell says. “If you don’t mirror the data, you’re asking for trouble.”

SAAS comes to the fore

The hassles of maintaining your information technology systems is probably why software as a service (SAAS) is growing in popularity, says Ernie Schell, president of Ventnor, NJ-based consultancy Marketing Systems Analysis. With SAAS, the technology provider hosts the system on its servers. It can apply to all manner of systems, including order management systems, contact center management systems, and customer relationship management packages. The benefit for merchants: They don’t have to make the capital investment in the servers and the software. It also eliminates IT infrastructure and management responsibilities on the client’s part, such as updating applications and installing software patches. If this sounds like the application service provider (ASP) of five years ago, Schell says, there’s a subtle difference. “With ASP, you owned the software, and the vendor hosted it for you. With SAAS, you don’t own the software. It’s purely pay as you go.” —

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