If you are an operator of multiple self-storage sites, this article is for you. It explains how your operation can have all of its sites operating from a central database.
You may have heard the term enterprise solution, a phrase commonly used in the computer industry. An enterprise solution involves several distinct, remote sites tied into a single database using a wide-area network (WAN). This type of solution was once reserved for very large companies like banks and insurance companies using mainframe computers. With the growth of the Internet, the cost of connecting remote sites has become affordable for almost any business.
How WAN Works
In a wide-area network, the software programs and databases are established on a central computer. Each site gets a connection to the main. The connection can be a DSL line, frame relay, fractional T line or similar type of service. The cost of these types of connections has become quite affordable.
To maximize the bandwidth utility, we use what is commonly referred to as thin-client computing. The remote users connect using Microsofts Terminal Services or Citrix. Terminal Services is a module that ships with Microsoft Server 2000 and can be installed at no additional charge. Citrix is a more expensive third-party product purchased as an add-on. Both products allow all computer processing to run on the server. The only things passed over the WAN are the screen displays and other small transmissions of data.
The benefits of an enterprise solution are obvious. Since all of the data is stored in a central database, the business can have instant access to information from all sites in a consolidated format. Management can print up-to-the-minute reports at any time. There is no need for cumbersome merge programs that are prone to problems. In a centralized database, all of the information is live and current. In the case of the Internet, you can have a single web server that allows your customers to rent, reserve and pay online for units at any of your sites from a single point of contact.
Another benefit is backing up and other routine maintenance is done on a single database at one location. There are also significant risk-management benefits. For instance, if you have 10 sites, each responsible for backing up its own data, it is extremely unlikely you are consistently getting 10 good backups. Most managers believe they are getting good backups; but when a disaster occurs, they are often surprised to learn they are not. People are trained to insert and remove a backup tape from their computer each day, but they do not fully understand the backup process and often fail to recognize the warning signs when a backup fails.
You must ask yourself: What is the cost of trying to reconstruct a lost database? What is the cost of trying to maintain adequate training and maintenance of multiple sites? It is important to understand that risk management goes beyond purchasing insurance. It is a philosophy of managing your business in such a way to protect its value and cash flow. In short, investing in the proper infrastructure for your organization can be viewed as a form of risk management.
To implement an enterprise solution, you must first use software designed to run multiple sites from a single database. Unfortunately, most self-storage software is designed to manage only a single facility. To support multiple sites, the software must take into consideration all elements that must be segregated from a single-site-users perspective.
For example, the software must be able to distinguish what units are associated with each site. Security must take multiple sites into account and limit access to one or more facilities. When a user is assigned to a particular site, he should only see units associated with that facility. These examples illustrate only a couple of the concepts the software must support.
On the other hand, administrators must see data from all sites in a consolidated format. The database engine must be designed to work for multiple sites over a WAN configuration. Most self-storage software providers have their users install stand-alone versions of the software on individual computers at each site. Then they use a special extraction to mine information from each database and a consolidation program to merge it at the home office. To set up the infrastructure for a WAN, you must have a centralized server and some level of bandwidth to connect the remote sites. The computers at the sites do not need to be powerful machines, because most of the processing is done at the central site on the server. Local printers must be configured on the WAN. Setting up an enterprise solution requires a commitment of resources, but the benefits are well worth it.
You must compare the costs of establishing and maintaining a WAN vs. installations of separate copies of software at each location. Many of the costs of maintaining separate databases may not be readily apparent and are often overlooked. For instance:
- What are the costs of having multiple people performing database backups and other redundant tasks?
- What are the costs of gathering information from multiple sources, preparing the data for consolidation, scrubbing the data and merging it into a single source?
- How important is it to have accurate real-time data that will allow management to make instant, informed decisions? For example, is it important to know how many of a particular size and type of unit is available at each site? With this information, you can quickly react to market conditions and maintain a higher level of occupancy.
This type of solution is not for everyone. It requires a commitment to technology. But if implemented correctly, an enterprise solution is well worth the cost and effort.
Steve Hyman is president of DHS Worldwide, which provides an enterprise MS-SQL selfstorage management-software solution. Mr. Hyman has a degree in computer science and business administration from Vanderbilt University. He received a Juris Doctorate from the University of Miami School of Law and is a licensed attorney in the state of Florida. He can be reached at 800.377.8406 or [email protected].