Best Buy takes server-centric cue from Future Shop

When Minneapolis-based Best Buy Co. Inc. planned to enter the Canadian market a few years ago, rumour had it the firm would school B.C.-based Future Shop Ltd. in the ways of electronic retailing. But it seems Future Shop is the teacher these days, giving Best Buy a lesson in cost-effective computing.

Best Buy acquired Future Shop in 2001. According to Roy Brassington, team leader, store systems at Best Buy Canada Ltd., it took some time for the firm to recognize how superior Future Shop’s computer infrastructure was beside its own.

Brassington talked about this at iForum, Citrix Systems Inc.’s annual gathering of partners and customers, held in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. earlier this month. Citrix makes server-based computing systems. Best Buy Canada is one of its customers.

Future Shop already employed a server-centric architecture when Best Buy hit the Canadian scene, Brassington said. In Future Shop’s setup, applications resided not on PCs out at the stores, but on centralized servers. Employees accessed the apps via “thin clients” — computers that have no resident applications.

Such server-based systems can be less expensive to operate than PC-based environments. IT concerns itself with managing a few servers rather than hundreds of individual desktop devices, for instance.

Best Buy Canada decided to use the server system in all of its stores, Best Buys and Future Shops alike. Brassington said the centralized architecture has proven beneficial. He figures support costs are 50 per cent less compared to PC environments. Deployment costs are 65 per cent less.

He said it takes less time to install thin clients at new stores compared to PCs. “This is key in the retail environment. We have to be fast.” Best Buy Canada even erects temporary training centres in hotels and conference rooms, which would be more difficult and time consuming if the retailer tried to do the same with traditional computers.

At the stores Best Buy Canada uses thin clients made by Wyse Technology Inc. out of San Jose. Via these terminals employees access word processing, sales, e-mail and fax applications, as well as the corporate intranet. The Wyse devices also act as Internet kiosks for store visitors.

“We’ve been very successful deploying Wyse terminals in our wireless environments,” Brassington said. It’s easier to move the terminals around in stores that use wireless networking versus the wired locations.

On the back end Best Buy Canada has 75 Citrix MetaFrame XP Presentation Servers. The retailer uses Wyse Rapport Device Management, a program that offers remote status info on end points, remote diagnostic tools and patch deployment.

Brassington said Best Buy Canada canvassed users before standardizing on thin clients. The firm tested the server-centric system with employees, and within IT to ensure it was as good as — or better than — a PC platform.

It’s important to get the users’ buy-in beforehand, Brassington said. “They have to fully understand what they’re getting.”

Now Best Buy Canada is surveying its corporate users to see what they need, and if the Citrix system would work in their offices. “The server-based computing model is not suited to some kinds of applications,” Brassington said, noting that complicated multimedia apps might not work very well.

For the most part, however, the server-centric infrastructure works for Best Buy Canada, especially when the retailer compares the costs of running its thin-client-enabled stores with the cost of its PC-enabled locations. Some of the retail outlets, about 20 per cent of them, still use PCs. But those few old-school locations cost more to manage than the entire fleet of thin-client and server-supported spots, Brassington said.

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