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12/5/2009
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J. Peterman's Technology Is No Seinfeld Joke

Catalog and Web clothing retailer J. Peterman -- yes, that J. Peterman of Seinfeld fame -- takes a surprisingly innovative approach to rejuvenating its reborn business with virtualization, backup appliances, and even WiMax Internet connections.

Sudden fame can be a two-edged sword -- even for an SMB. When catalog retailer The J. Peterman Company became a running gag on the Seinfeld TV show, the exposure brought in an estimated $1 billion in free "advertising" and name recognition. Unfortunately, most people thought it was a fake company and all the publicity contributed more to hubris than sales.

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Ironically, that perception soon became reality when poor cash-flow management -- at least partly stemming from the media notoriety -- forced the company out of business in 1998. In 1999, Paul Harris Stores bought the name and inventory, but then they went out of business a year later. In 2002, the original J. Peterman and John O'Hurley, the actor who had played him on Sienfeld, bought back the name and re-established the company.

From Soap Opera To Technology
But although the company may have survived a past that mixes sitcoms and soap opera, its future is based on technology. While there's still a print catalog, today the business is becoming more Web-oriented all the time, say chief technology officer Matt Rogish. And that has turned a company once synonymous with a joke into a technology leader.

The transition has not been easy. The technology side of the company was in just as bad shape as the business side.

Before Rogish joined the company two years ago, there was no dedicated IT director. "IT has grown in fits and starts," Rogish says, "with no real driving architecture behind it. No vision to the future. "Once I got here, I saw we were running by a thread."

"Back in the day," Rogish says, J. Peterman relied on an IBM AS400 minicomputer powering thin clients for several hundred folks at its Lexington, Kentucky, headquarters. "Ancient" Dell servers running Windows NT were stuck in a closet with an old UPS... "I'm sure the batteries were dead," he sighs. There were no support contracts.

Lost Orders = Big Problems
More importantly, the problems were costing the company money. "When we would have high volume, we would have dropped orders," Rogish says. "They'd be sent to fulfillment and they would disappear. That's a bad thing." Worse, the company wouldn't find out about the lost orders until someone would call up and ask: 'Where's my order?' "

Rogish has spent the last two years on consolidation, with a heavy use of VMware. The company now runs everything on a "small VMware farm" with twelve virtual machines (Windows and Linux) running on ten physical servers supported by three 6 TB Netgear ReadyNAS Pro storage devices. (The original switchover was done to three servers and one ReadyNAS.)

All the servers are now co-located in Cincinnati, not in my office, Rogish jokes. There's only one Windows server and one ReadyNAS here. The new hardware makes it easy to set permissions, Rogish says, so not everyone has access to all the company's data. By comparison, the old file server was just a shared folder.

Failed Drives And Corrupt Tapes
Storage and backup were in equally bad shape. Rogish recalls that a drive had failed in one RAID 5 box, but "no one had noticed that the light was blinking." Similarly, when Rogish initially tested the company's backup tapes, "they were all corrupt!" he says. The locations of the backup targets had changed on most of the company's servers, so IT employees were "taking home empty tapes every Friday." And even when they weren't empty, there were other problems. "Tapes can be very sensitive," Rogish knows, "they don't like being stuck in the trunk of a car."

Today, everything can be replicated in a couple of hours to Cincinnati Bell, Rogish explains. "We have a VMware image we can spin up. It's not instantaneous, but we don't have the kind of business where we'll lose a million dollars if we're down for a few hours."

Using WiMax To Replace T-1 Lines!
Connectivity was the next big issue. When Rogish first arrived at J. Peterman, the backup Internet connection wasn't connected to anything, he says. "They didn't know how to use it."

In addition, the T-1 backup used the same last mile as the company's primary connection, so if that went down, the backup often went down as well. Plus, T-1s are quite expensive, Rogish complains and "we don't get such great service." "Every time it rains, we get packet loss! When there's humidity in the box, it just freaks out."

In response, J. Peterman made the unusual move to use WiMax as its backup Internet connection! The new wireless service from QX.net is dramatically cheaper than pulling new cable, Rogish says, and still provides 50 Mbps to 60 Mbps of throughput. The routing to the company's data center in Cincinnati is actually faster than the primary connection. "We're considering using it as our primary Internet connection," Rogish reveals, "if the latency is still better and the uptime is good enough."

Finally, Rogish had to deal with physical issues as well. As the company started growing again, the warehouse had grown three or four times, including by taking over an adjacent building. Rogish wired two networks together using 24-port switches in the ceiling. Physical space remains a concern, as the company has no more room to grow. The big question is: "Are we getting every dollar out of our space?

Power is a problem, too. After an ice storm cut power for three days last Winter, Rogish is now investing in physical backup systems, including backup generators for the company's buildings.

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