May 2, 2006

La-Z-Boy retailer revamps with Linux

Author: Tina Gasperson

Kevin Mauldin's younger brother Gary was CEO of Denver-based La-Z-Boy Furniture Galleries, an independent four-store retailer of La-Z-Boy, Inc. furniture. When Gary died in 2002 as the result of complications from an accident, Kevin inherited the CEO's job and an IT infrastructure that had been built from scratch by his technologically talented sibling. Unfortunately, it was such a patchwork of disparate technologies that no one else could easily sort it out. Mauldin decided on an IT overhaul, aimed at planting La-Z-Boy firmly on a Linux foundation.

From the start, Mauldin knew his limitations. "I'm a retailer. I retail furniture," he says. "My younger brother was a computer guru. He did all the maintenance, he built the system, he knew hardware and software." After the younger Mauldin passed away, the IT infrastructure was in need of maintenance and the company had no IT staff. "He didn't mind doing things on a budget because he knew if it didn't last he could rebuild it," Mauldin says. "I didn't have that luxury." He decided to sit down and do a "full analysis" on the system so he could understand what the company had and what it needed to do.

Mauldin pulled in a consultant from The Uptime Group to help him figure out what was going on. Dale Laushman, CTO at Uptime, says there were multiple problems. "They were using Datarace routers, and that company had gone out of business 15 years earlier. They had a few email addresses through their ISP, and they were printing them out and sharing them. There was one main server running Unix, with a retail point-of-sale system sold by General Electric."

The biggest problem was the aging technology of the frame relay network provided by the phone company. "The network would go down and it would take days to get the hardware we needed to replace," Mauldin says. "The speed of the network was really a big [problem] because you'd get all these salespeople logged in, and they couldn't do their work because the network wasn't performing well. We had multiple stores, all feeding off the same inventory. For instance, we may have two chairs and two recliners in stock. A customer at one store may be looking to buy all of the stock, and another customer in another store just wants one chair. We end up overselling the inventory, and it's going to cost sales, and its going to cost customers. In this day and age the customer is not going to put up with that. We have to be able to depend on technical information quickly and securely, and we have to be able to trust in it."

Because Mauldin didn't have a lot of money to spend on the overhaul, Laushman convinced him to try Red Hat Linux and have La-Z-Boy become its own ISP. "We took off-the-shelf PCs, put them in a rackmount chassis, and we were able to move the network over to that," Laushman says. "When we dropped the frame relay, that saved us $5,000 a year."

Laushman also helped Mauldin set up an email server on an Intel Pentium 4 running Fedora, Qmail, and Vpopmail. La-Z-Boy is keeping the Unix server and the GE POS system for now because it suits the company's needs, and it's retaining about 25 workstations running Windows and 25 thin clients.

Mauldin is satisfied with the results of the migration. "I got everything that was important to me. I saved a ton of money, and I got simplicity," he says. "All of this is pretty simple stuff, considered that what we do is so complex in the furniture business. Our system is really clean."

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