Linux Looks Good to Retail

 Once the exclusive province of Internet infrastructure geeks and open-source devotees, Linux is starting to look attractive to retailers.

“I think you’ll see more and more retailers wake up to Linux,” says Mike Prince, vice president and CIO of Burlington Coat Factory, based in Burlington, NJ. Burlington made the jump to Linux last year, installing its first Linux boxes at retail locations and warehouses starting in April 1999. The company has deployed Linux as its exclusive client operating system on desktop PCs throughout its 261 stores, and is exploring the use of Linux on point-of-sale systems.

So far, the computers have more than met expectations for reliability, scalability, and ease of maintenance. “The only time we ever have any problems with one of these boxes is when somebody physically damages them,” Prince says.

Prince is one of a small but growing number of retail executives attracted by the special attributes of the open-source operating system. These include the fact that it can be easily modified for specific applications, is well-suited to remote management, can be easily supported because of its Unix heritage, and costs little or nothing.

One Linux vendor that has jumped into the retail market is Neoware Systems Inc., a maker of Linux-based thin client appliances. “Retail is our single biggest market,” says Neoware president and CEO Michael Kantrowitz. “Our research indicates that retail is going to be one of the largest commercial users of Linux.”

Other vendors are also optimistic, if somewhat more guarded in their projections. Jerry Rightmer, CTO of 360Commerce, a developer of Java-based retail applications, sees Linux as promising. “It seems to be a reliable operating system, it’s robust, and it does have a few miles under its belt, although not in a retail setting,” says Rightmer. 360Commerce developed the gift-registry system in use at Burlington Coat Factory, and was able to deploy it to Burlington’s Linux systems with very little extra effort, according to Rightmer.

“What we’re seeing is some installations more on the server—the print server, the mail server,” says Pablo Reiter, president and CEO of Csoft International. “I believe that the end of this year or early next, we’ll see Linux at point of sale, in handhelds, and in kiosks.”

Easy to Work With

The open-source nature of Linux has strong appeal for the retail industry, where many applications are developed in-house to suit specific needs. When using Linux, in-house developers have the ability to modify the underlying OS, tuning it to match the needs of a single application.

Says IBM’s Dave Turek, vice president of deep computing and Web servers: “If you married a single application to Linux, you could get that application to work very well, and in some cases to work better than you could on a general purpose operating system,” says Turek.

One potential shortcoming—the lack of Linux device drivers for retail-specific peripherals—is slowly being addressed by device vendors and

others. 360Commerce recently announced a partnership with IT service provider Wincor Nixdorf to jointly develop and test Linux-based thin client point-of-sale products, including Linux drivers for retail devices such as bar-code scanners, electronic and point-of-sale printers.

Another big advantage of Linux is remote management, says Neoware’s Kantrowitz. Retail chains with dozens or hundreds of stores typically have no IT personnel on site at most locations. Thin-client systems managed from a central office are an attractive alternative to Windows PCs.

And a key benefit for retail is preservation of legacy hardware, says Csoft’s Reiter. He explains that older POS devices running a DOS system on 486 chips, for example, can be re-configured with Linux to operate with multi-tasking and browsers. While Linux is derived from Unix, most versions of Unix “cannot be brought down to such a small footprint. Linux runs in 16 megs of memory,” Reiter comments.

Different Paths

One approach is to use thin clients that simulate a desktop PC environment. Department store chain Neiman Marcus installed Neoware client systems in its retail locations for store managers. These terminals access native Windows applications running on Citrix servers in Neiman Marcus’ Dallas headquarters.

Another option is to install Linux-native PCs in retail locations, as Burlington Coat Factory did. Prince acknowledges that Linux office applications don’t boast the full breadth of features available in the industry-standard Microsoft Office suite, but says that the Linux productivity tools are sufficient for most store managers’ needs. “What’s out there is perfectly adequate for a retail store manager who has to do simple spreadsheets and relatively simple composition of messages,” says Prince.

Linux’s Unix roots and the increasing availability of support options for the OS are also positive features for retailers. “Unix has been very strong in the retail marketplace,” says Prince. “Most retailers have a fair amount of Unix skills in house, so Linux becomes very easy to do.” In Burlington’s case, the transition to Linux was relatively painless, given the company’s years of experience with Sun SPARC systems in the retail locations and IBM Numa-Q servers on the back end.

Prince says, Burlington had many options, ranging from vendors Neoware and 360Commerce to Red Hat, which distributed the Linux Burlington is using. But as it turns out, Burlington’s technicians have been able to get most of their Linux questions resolved for free, using Internet newsgroups.

Ah yes: Free. The low cost of Linux is certainly another big point in its favor for margin-sensitive retailers. “Free is good in a retail environment, when you’ve got hundreds of locations,” says Prince. Kantrowitz agrees: “Let’s face it, retailers face big cost constraints.”

Reiter says cost is the primary factor for retailers, but maintenance cost and overall cost of ownership rather than initial cost. “With thousands of distributed machines, competing platforms have proven pretty unwieldy in terms of support,” he says.

Slow Progress

So will Linux will be taking retail establishments by storm this year? According to GartnerGroup research director Carol Ferrara, most retailers are taking a wait-and-see attitude—for now. “I talk to a lot of retailers … and while sometimes Linux is mentioned, it’s always kind of on the back burner,” says Ferrara.

Over the next couple of years, however, that will change. “We’re going to see good adoption rates of Linux in retail over the next one to two years, especially as a platform for Java applications,” says Ferrara. She predicts that specialty retailers will lead the Linux charge, followed later by higher-volume supermarkets and general merchandisers.

IBM’s Turek predicts that Linux will be adopted first as a platform for special-purpose applications. Later, as Linux servers prove their scalability and robustness, Linux will increasingly be used as a platform for consolidating multiple back-office servers into smaller, more tightly-managed clusters.

“Right now I’d say we’re still in the investigative phase in the industry,” says Rightmer. Still, Rightmer believes Linux adoption will eventually increase among retailers: “It gives them some options. Retailers have been tied into proprietary solutions for so long that they now actively seek options at every turn.”

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Linux Looks Good to Retail