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"Redundancy: Is Your POS Software Fail-Safe?"

- By Jeff Haefner


Computers are not perfect, and neither is software. My point is that there is always a point of failure in any system. Assuming you are currently working with a POS software system, have you evaluated your system for the obvious points of failure?

In this article I will give you some ideas on how to protect your operation by anticipating these weak points and building reliability into your system. If you are working with a VAR, (value added reseller) they can educate you about the specific redundancy features of your POS software, as well as present back up precautions available to you.

What is redundancy?

Redundancy is a feature built into some POS software that can save time, money, and keep your customers and employees happy. Sounds good, right? So, just what IS redundancy? In a nutshell, it is backup contingencies offered by some POS software that will take over in case of a network, server or internet failure.

I'd like to tell you a story to illustrate this POS feature. As I was waiting to check out at my favorite building supply store, I noticed there was some commotion at the front of the line. The retail clerk was frantically hitting keys at the register to complete a sale, with no success.

She called to the cashier at the work station next to hers and discovered that his station was also down.

She picked up the phone to call her manager, who hustled up to the register with a ring of keys. In a matter of minutes she had the work stations up and the relieved clerks were back in business.

Lucky for me and other waiting customers, this store had a redundant POS software installation, and a well-trained manager. The manager had rebooted each work station, and their redundant configuration allowed the registers to work independently until the system was up and running again.

What had in fact happened was that the network failed, and the dependent work stations stopped functioning as a result. Each register in this store was configured to use the main server as a database for transactions.

When communication to this server failed, the manager was able to set up the workstations to run independently. Using the current inventory and an alternate server, or a limited backup database intrinsic in the POS software, the registers were able to resume transactions.

After restoring the system, each workstation would be switched back to using the main server and download all the accumulated sales data to this central database. This switch can be automated as well, depending on your POS software.

What are the many levels of redundancy?

There are many levels of redundancy. Let's look at some of the options available to the POS user.

Option 1: Independent workstations

Some POS software systems are designed to allow each register to work independently off the main server or database until that connection is re-established. Either automated or manually switched, this built-in feature will keep the system in operation in case of a network, server or internet failure.

Aloha POS, Keystroke, Synchronics, Prophetline and Celerant Command are just a few examples of software that offers redundancy for servers and networks. There are many others.

As in the example cited earlier, these POS systems are designed to allow each register to work independently off the main server or database.

The store can continue to ring sales, and when the system is returned to normal, each work station synchronizes with the main server and updates the sales data collected during the outage.

Option 2: Hardware Redundancy

Vendors, also known as integrators or value-added resellers (VARs) can build redundancy into your POS system hardware using alternate servers, continuous data polling and backup, or mirrored hard drives. Cost-prohibitive in the past, now a second computer is very affordable.

Integrators can set up RAID (redundant array of inexpensive disks) mirroring for redundancy, so that if the hard drive crashes, you are protected against data loss. This is a slightly more expensive alternative, but will keep the server operational even in the case of a hard drive failure. Call your computer consultant for more information on RAID. If you use an internet-based POS (ASP, Application Service Provider Model) then you can use redundant internet connections to avoid down time. Several VPN routers on the market allow you to use load balancing and have fail safe options, so if one internet connection goes down, you can keep running on the second connection.

Yet another level of redundancy is installing a UPS, uninterrupted power supply, a short-term fix for power failures. The UPS acts as a redundant source for electricity.

Option 3: Alternate credit card processing

Another aspect of redundancy is alternate secure credit card processing, offered by POS software like Keystroke, Aloha and Celerant Command.

POS credit card approval is transmitted over the internet. If the internet goes down, an auto redundancy feature is activated that uses a secure back-up modem to connect to dialup.

For security and reliability concerns, you can purchase additional routers and create your own VPN (virtual private network). This precaution improves reliability with network redundancy or dial-up backup systems. Routers like Cisco 1711 and sonic Wall 2040 offer this feature in case your broadband service fails.

As a third line of defense for a modem connection failure, you can always manually call in and get a verbal authorization for credit transactions.

Option 4: Data back-up

This isn't exactly redundancy. And actually, it's not even an option. I thought I should mention this because you absolutely must be doing daily back ups and rotate the media every day!!! And you need do back ups even if you're utilizing all the redundancy options above.

Automated data back up is essential. Back-ups can be programmed for any time interval, and are usually performed at the close of business for the day.

One caution that I hear from both VARs and dealers is that although most stores back up their POS data religiously, very few try to use this data unless an emergency arises.

Emergencies are not a good time to be experimenting with restoring your system with a tape backup. Pick an off-peak time to test your procedure before you rely on your backup. For more information about back ups, check out this article I wrote a while back: http://www.possoftwareguide.com/articles/protect-your-data2.html

Why You Need to Train Employees for Redundancy

Redundancy is all about training. The best thought-out system still needs trained people who know how to use it. Do your employees know your procedure for bringing a backup server online if your main server should fail? How about writing a hand receipt for each customer, and re-entering all data when the system is back up?

A poorly trained employee can be a liability: entering data incorrectly, introducing viruses through unsafe email practices or downloads, causing lock-ups and system crashes.

There is no doubt that insufficient training causes system failures. Investing in good training from your VAR will reduce system malfunctions and help your bottom line.

TIP: I highly recommend documenting your contingency plan so it can be easily referenced by your employees. The document should explain what to do in case of failure or emergency. If you don't have this document, you're playing with fire!

What do I recommend for redundancy?

When considering POS computer systems and redundancy, there's no one-size-fits-all solution. The answer comes down to one thing...

Your return on investment (ROI).

Think outside the box when looking at your ROI, as it will not be the same from one retailer to the next. Also keep in mind that you are buying software that should last you at least five years (and hopefully much longer).

Simply ask yourself, if I spend an extra $3000 (or whatever the price may be) for robust fail-safe features, can I expect to recoup this expense? How much revenue can I realistically expect to bring in during an outage of one hour? One or more days? These estimates must be considered over the long term.

Here's a quick and dirty way to figure ROI: Assuming you have a typical computer system, you can conservatively count on going down at least three times a year. That's 15 times in a five year period, the estimated life of your POS software. If you can recoup that $3000 and more in five years by being able to ring sales, it's a smart move. If not, don't spring for the extra features.

For a high volume grocery store it would probably be worth it, since check-out speed is so critical in order to maintain a high level of customer service and satisfaction. On the other hand, a small gift shop might not see a return on investment because they can easily write tickets for the few times the computer goes down.

The biggest downside for the gift shop is... will their customer service suffer greatly because they can't check past sales history and offer those little extras that their customers have come to expect??

In most retail situations, the reliability of your POS is very important. Use your connection to the POS vendor to find out what your "fail safe" options are, and determine your ROI - assuming your system will crash a few times each year.

Of course, it's always nice to have redundancy. And if you can get it for a reasonable price, by all means, go for it!

Making changes

You might be realizing that you need to make some changes. I highly recommend getting help from a computer consultant and taking the necessary steps to ensure your ability to operate if your network, server or IT connection should fail.

Don't wait!! Do it NOW! I promise, you'll be glad you did. It is just plain smart management practice to have a plan B ready in case of a problem.

If you have not yet purchased your POS software, be sure to check out my POS Software Guide (http://www.possoftwareguide.com) and comparison chart (http://www.possoftwareguide.com/new-chart.html) for valuable information about this selection process. Remember, I advise choosing your software first, then selecting hardware to support your POS.

Drop me a line and let me know which POS software you are using and how you like it!

To Your Success!

Jeff Haefner



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