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World Series challenge puts retailer's POS system to test

Medium-sized companies like retailer Jordan's Furniture are transitioning from manual systems management processes and looking for affordable automated management technologies.

When a New England furniture retail chain launches a television ad campaign promising full refunds to customers if the Boston Red Sox win the World Series in 2007, that company's point-of-sales terminals better have zero downtime.

Any environment that has a data center, no matter how small, should have a systems management tool.
Steve Brasen
analystEnterprise Management Associates
Last spring, Eliot Tatelman, a former co-owner and the icon behind Jordan's Furniture Inc., announced that customers who bought furniture between March 7 and April 16 would get their money back if the Red Sox win the World Series. Stunts like this are nothing new for the colorful retailer, known for its goofy and ubiquitous commercials, in-store IMAX movie theaters and restaurants, and animatronic concerts featuring Elvis and the Village People.

Tatelman said he took out insurance to cover the costs of the promotion in case the Red Sox win the championship. And after this weekend's dramatic come-from-behind victory in the American League Championship Series against the Cleveland Indians, that's a real possibility.

So it's a good thing that by adopting an automated approach to systems management, Jordan's Furniture, purchased in 1999 by Omaha, Neb.-based Berkshire Hathaway Inc., has almost eliminated downtime for its point-of-sales and back-office systems.

Jason Cummins, IS services manager at Jordan's Furniture, said his Taunton, Mass.-based company used to rely on a large number of manual systems management processes.

"There was a lot of sneakernet going on," Cummins said. He said the company had a help desk ticketing system and an inventory tracker, but most other management processes were handled manually.

The 1,200-person company has been using the KBox 1000, a systems management appliance from Mountain View, Calif.-based KACE Networks Inc., for about a year. KACE is a systems management company that aims its appliances at medium-sized companies. It also sells the KBox 2000, a systems deployment appliance.

"It runs on all our machines," Cummins said of the appliance. "We use it for inventory functions, to track what's out in the environment -- both hardware and software. We use it for license tracking and also to manage installations of software, software updates and new installations. We use it for help desk ticketing and for trending of assets -- how many service calls these machines have had in a month."

The more centralized and automated view of his IT environment has dramatically, if not completely, reduced downtime for users, Cummins said.

Experts say too many medium-sized firms leave themselves with a competitive disadvantage by relying on manual processes for critical aspects of IT systems management.

Will Jordan's have to pay up?
The Red Sox will face the Colorado Rockies in game one of the World Series Wednesday in Boston.
Steve Brasen, an analyst at Enterprise Management Associates (EMA) in Boulder, Colo., said many SMBs shy away from automated systems management technologies for a couple of reasons.

"The big thing is probably cost," Brasen said. "You have to convince the administrative folks that this is going to be cost-effective for them. The other piece is going to be cultural, at the systems support level. As little as 10 years ago it was within the ability of system administrators to use totally manual processes. You get that mind-set that you want to be able to control that environment. You don't want automated tools doing that for you. It's a trust factor. And job security as well. They were worried that automated management tools will replace their jobs."

Brasen said system administrators soon realize these tools don't make them obsolete. Instead, they increase their productivity.

Last month, EMA published research on IT systems management. It found that 90% of 120 small and medium-sized companies surveyed rely on manual processes to maintain their IT environments. Meanwhile, 75% of Fortune 1,000 companies use automated technology. Brasen said it's hard to know how many of those companies are so small that system management tools aren't needed. But if a company has a server, it needs to get away from manual IT management.

"Any environment that has a data center, no matter how small, should have a systems management tool," Brasen said.

He said a company that tries to manage 20 or 30 servers without systems management tools will struggle to compete head-to-head with competitors that do utilize the tools.

"There are some very high costs from using traditional manual methods," Brasen said. "One is downtime. Another is change management. Your environment will change on a daily basis. How do you know a particular file or a particular setting within a file has changed? Through manual processes you only discover that after the change has happened. You come into the office and find out the network or system performance has gone slow or you have services that are no longer available. So you have to go hunt down and find out what change occurred.

"Ten years ago that was common," Brasen said. "You didn't have the complex environments you have today, and security wasn't as important as it is today. You just can't do that today. With automated solutions they can track what changed in your environment and they can determine if a change caused some problems. And they can send up a red flag that this happened before a problem occurs."

Cummins said many medium-sized companies find the cost of automated systems management technologies prohibitive. But KACE's KBox 1000 is priced for the midmarket -- the basic appliance, with a license for 100 seats, starts at $10,000.

"I think a lot of the time medium-sized companies get intimidated by the initial investment," Cummins said. "It's a case of them not looking at the numbers long term."

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Aside from price, Cummins said his company was drawn to the KBox 1000 because it's largely self-contained as an appliance.

"It's nice because it's housing everything in one device," he said. "Software-based solutions can be spread out over several different servers. As a midsized business, we don't want to have a lot of assets spread out. We want to be able to keep the environment as simple as possible."

KACE executives say their products are aimed at organizations with between 100 and 10,000 employees. Originally, their focus was more at organizations smaller than 5,000, but they have added some new features such as roles-based provisioning to allow more complex organizations to scale the technology.

"KACE might have a hard time dealing with large companies with complex network topologies," Brasen said. "You would need multiple boxes on different domains. But they're not targeting those kinds of businesses. [KACE competitor] LANdesk has solved the ability to support large infrastructures. But there's a cost difference with being able to provide that functionality."

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Shamus McGillicuddy, News Writer

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