Retailer finds Linux delivers more for less

A former basketball, volleyball, rugby and soccer player, Robin Lynas brings a sporting enthusiasm to his role as CIO of Mark’s Work Wearhouse Ltd., an apparel and footwear retail chain in Canada owned by Canadian Tire Corporation, Limited.

“It’s all about building a team that wants to be here,” he says. “My job is to figure out what the strategy is going to be and then let these guys do what they’re best at but give them enough direction to pull it all together.”

Three knee surgeries, a broken arm, a separated shoulder and a couple of breaks to his nose attest to his competitive drive and willingness to make the most of opportunities. Now a father and coach and responsible for the IT of a company with sales this year of about $580 million, Lynas may steer a more cautious course, but he is clearly willing to tread where many others dare not go.

At press time, his team was just completing a five-month roll out of Chelsea Market Systems’ thin client Java POS solution, now Retek Inc.’s Point-of-Service (RPOS), to new Linux-based IBM terminals at more than 300 stores across Canada, including French language support in Quebec.

The new system is replacing what Lynas describes as a solid system that delivered all the data they wanted but had old cash registers for which even parts were unavailable. It was also eliminating the in-store processors, saving costs in addition to no licensing fees.

Like many other early Linux adopters, Lynas was attracted to the alternative operating solution’s cost, reliability and performance. But, he had to be convinced first.

“I’m not anti-Microsoft,” he stresses. “They’ve got great products. It’s just that in this particular case, there was a way to do it that was cheaper from an organizational point of view and the reliability was proven to me.

“A year ago I would have been sitting here thinking ‘sure we hear lots about Linux but, you know, it’s freeware and what the heck does that mean?'” he adds. “Now I’m very much sold on the fact that Linux is freedom of speech in the software operating system world. It’s a bunch of people who collaborated and got together. You can add stuff on to the Linux kernel and you can use it or not use it, it’s up to you.”

The idea for using Linux came from Dog Star Systems Inc., also of Calgary, Alta., to whom Lynas outsources their operations, including WAN, LAN, servers, help desk and the roll-out and deployment of the point of sale system.

Mark’s had been modelling the Java POS system implementation on Chelsea/Retek customer The Men’s Wearhouse, an American men’s clothier which is marketed as Moore’s in Canada. That firm ran the software on Microsoft XP. As Dog Star was adding objects to the Java POS software to adapt it to the Canadian marketplace, they came up with the idea of running it on Linux instead. Lynas recalls he was sceptical about running a mission critical application on it, but he gave them the chance to prove its capabilities.

Testing the claims

A retail test script with a full range of retail specific transactions was run over and over again on two new cash registers, one loaded with Linux, the other with XP. Lynas reports that “the XP one would crash before the Linux one every single time.”

When he asked how much Linux was going to cost, Lynas says he was told: “we can go out and buy one CD for $60, burn the image and run it as many times as we want or we can just download it.”

After discussing distribution and weighing the inability to purchase distribution support on IP-based PC cash registers, it was decided to go with Red Hat Linux 7.3 in a five-store pilot. When that ran fine, Mark’s tried it on a 70-store pilot.

“We went through the first Christmas season and we probably did about $35 or $40 million worth of sales with those 70 stores and we didn’t even have a hiccup,” Lynas recalls.

They subsequently scaled it to 300+ without any problems, he adds. “I have it running on about six application servers that are IBM xSeries Intel boxes. They are about $6,000 a pop. I don’t have any operating system costs. We’re running quite nicely without any hiccups at all from an operating point of view.”

The Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based IGEL Technology sped up the full roll-out by burning onto a 128k flashcard the Linux image Mark’s had to load onto every till. Instead of taking three hours to load, it took less than a half hour by just sliding the flash card into a flash card slot.

IGEL also burned a flash card that Mark’s put into the old IBM NetVistas to get more life out of these thin clients that IBM doesn’t build anymore.

Now, Mark’s new store environment features: IBM SurePOS 53x 1.2 Ghz, 20 GB drive POS system with a 15-inch flat touch screen, thermal printer, cash drawer, scanner, pole display and banking components. It runs IBM xSeries servers in the naming and application layers with IBM iSeries server partition for DB2.

Back office thin terminals run Phoenix Web browser (renamed Mozilla Firebird) for store portal access, Crystal Decisions Reporting, Mocha 5250 Emulation to connect to a host via TCP/IP with the Telnet protocol, and basic e-mail. User interface sits on the IP registers which connect directly via frame relay to central servers at Mark’s head office in Calgary.

Mark’s uses Retail Ideas from JDA Software for the data warehouse and Crystal Reporting to deliver Web-based sales reports to stores.

“Crystal’s a great little product for deploying that stuff,” says Lynas. “If your data warehouse is well defined in the first place and you’re simply reading the information to deliver it through Crystal, it’s very flexible and very easy for end users to use. We run it over everything. You can point it at whatever you want.”

Scoring high

Lynas has a winner’s enthusiasm for the Java POS system running on Linux. He says new store costs are down 30 per cent; maintenance is reduced 50 per cent. Training cycles have been cut from two days to a half day. Help desk calls are down. IT support staff requirements are decreasing.

Transactions are uploaded to corporate as soon as the transaction is done, so there is no more polling. If necessary, stores can still run in offline mode.

The open system means they can run applications on whatever platform and operating system they like, he says. Also, since the applications are database independent, they can write to SQL, Oracle, DB2 or whatever, he adds. Developers can readily add new applications that connect to the POS system.

And then there’s the cost savings.

Lynas disagrees that the Linux cost advantage is overblown. “It may be when you’re talking about deploying it over five or six servers, but when I’m talking about deploying it over a 1000 cash lanes and I would have had to have purchased an XP license for every single one and an IPA client so I could deliver some of the browser capabilities to it, even if Microsoft had gone all out for me and given enterprise server versions, I probably would have been looking at $200 per lane.”

Meeting the business needs is the score that really counts, however.

“As we went through our old strategies in our old application development environments where we were somewhat limited in what we could do, we struggled like everyone else to deliver what the business wanted,” Lynas says. He chuckles as he reports that now his team is able to keep up with demand for applications. “Stores are asking us to slow down!”

Forrester defends Linux readiness

It’s “hogwash” that the recent lawsuit by SCO Group against IBM indicates that Linux is too risky, according to a Forrester Research report by Ted Schadler with Charles Rutstein. Titled Linux is More Than Ready For the Enterprise, the report released in June makes five points in favour of the open source operating system.

Of 877 large North American companies Forrester interviewed last December, 17 per cent were already using Linux. The Linux kernel is more than ready for enterprise workloads. Commercial support is readily available. Independent software vendors are porting their applications to the operating system. IBM will protect their US$2 billion of server, software and services revenue.

“Waiting means only one thing: cheating your company of the savings that come from moving Unix workloads to Linux on Intel,” they argue.