Sweet E-mail Dreams

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As of Labor Day, retailers industry-wide began filling stores with holiday merchandise in hopes of spurring early holiday sales. For Mattress Discounters, Labor Day marked the end of its holiday frenzy. Thanks to an e-mail backup system, the season went off without a hitch.

Besides selling mattresses, Mattress Discounters makes and sells other bedding merchandise such as box springs and foundations. The Upper Marlboro, Md.-based specialty retailer had $122 million in sales in 2007, and a bulk of those sales occur during its peak season. Unlike other retailers that are currently scrambling to prepare for the critical holiday shopping season, however, Mattress Discounters’ busy season just ended.

Its peak season, which runs between Memorial Day and Labor Day, is often driven by collegians heading off to school, as well as the summer season that often sparks many house purchases.

Like any retailer preparing for the “holiday rush,” Mattress Discounters spends its off-season getting its systems in order to ensure that all of its infrastructure can handle an increase in holiday volume. This is especially true for the retailer’s Microsoft Exchange e-mail server, which is a communications conduit that manages communications between corporate, the chain’s 140-plus stores and merchandise vendors, as well as incoming customer e-mails.

During the company’s peak season, for example, the company can field an average of 30,000 e-mails per day. Mattress Discounters also has 200 e-mail users within the company.

“We are in a business where communications are critical,” Craig Foss, senior manager of information systems, told Chain Store Age. “Our stores, warehouses and field managers are coordinating daily activities. When that link goes down, communication dies.”

That is exactly what happened during an unexpected failure approximately three years ago. Due to a hardware issue, Mattress Discounters’ e-mail server was crippled and offline for almost three days. “Our hardware vendor did work quickly to repair the equipment, but once it was repaired we learned that we were not able to restore the data that resided on our hard drive,” he explained.

“We had to restore this information from backup tapes, which is essentially the same as starting from scratch,” Foss said.

Restoration was “a long, drawn-out process,” he said. “E-mail is a core communications tool, but I don’t think we realized just how important it was until it went down. After a few days, we got everything up and running. But the experience prompted us to find something that could protect us from ever having to do this again.”

The company began canvassing the marketplace in search of a failover solution. This is a backup application that switches a failing or disrupted system component, such as a server or database, to a secondary set of components to manage the operation while the primary system is being repaired. Finding the ideal solution became more difficult than the chain expected.

“We spoke with many different companies that supported failover by creating redundancy by backing up systems to their own hosting facilities, their servers or even through a local area network [LAN],” Foss explained. “But these options were very expensive.”

Soon, the company found Neverfail for Exchange from Austin, Texas-based Neverfail. Before installing the software, the chain had to install and program a second e-mail server. The software, which acts as a conduit between the company’s two e-mail servers, replicates data between both servers. If one goes down, the second can take over instantly, which adds redundancy to the operation, and transparency to users.

Once the hardware was in place, Mattress Discounters installed the software on its two Microsoft Exchange servers—the primary server as well as the new, second backup server. “This new hardware resides in the background, hidden from the network,” he explained.

As e-mail enters the primary e-mail server, or as data changes filter through the backup server, the software replicates all information so the two servers have the exact same information. The software also checks the different components of the primary exchange server, including the operating system, antivirus applications and malware applications.

If there are any discrepancies or service disruptions, Neverfail shuts down the primary server and brings the backup server online to serve the company’s communications needs until the primary server is serviced or repaired.

Clearly, Neverfail is only a safeguard and doesn’t ward off any potential issues. But it is an “insurance policy” that has already come in handy for the specialty retailer.

“We had a hardware failure a couple of years ago and the failover system worked perfectly,” Foss reported.

“More recently, we had a problem with a corrupt database,” he said. “The failover system kicked in and enabled us to repair the issue without our e-mail going down. The solution has easily saved us a couple of times.”

While the company is always seeking new ways to protect itself from outages, “We are comfortable with the service it has provided us so far,” he said.

“The best result is that we have avoided any major outages,” noted Foss. “The successful performance of the solution also frees up the team to concentrate on making sure that our other core systems remain stable and reliable, especially during our peak season.”

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