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Big Vendors Leap To More Linux In Retail Stores

Competition Heating Up

  • January 26, 2006
  • By Jacqueline Emigh

Although Microsoft is becoming an increasingly formidable rival in the same space, IBM, Sun, Oracle, and many other vendors are now responding to renewed opportunities for Linux in department store environments, as retail chains like Circuit City, Pep Boys, and Urban Outfitters start to step to 100-percent Linux deployments on their store-level IT systems.

At the NRF (National Retail Federation) show in New York City last week, for instance, Circuit City outlined plans for an in-store architecture that will use software from 360Commerce to implement Linux all the way from POS (point of service) terminals to the branch back office.

Slated for a pilot starting in March, the in-store implementation will be part of a new multichannel implementation, also relying on 360's middleware, that brings together in-store, catalog, and Web-based selling on the same back end, said Michael Jones, Circuit City's CIO, in a presentation at the show.

Circuit City's multichannel, multiplatform architecture will also integrate software from Retek, order management software from Yantra, and presentation software from Streamserve.

Meanwhile, that same week, word got out that Oracle had quietly acquired 360Commerce for an undisclosed sum, adding to an Oracle portfolio that already included Retek.

Also at the NRF show last week, hordes of hardware and software vendors launched new Linux-enabled products for retail store management. IBM and Sun, for example, each made news with the announcement of new server solutions, specifically designed for retail environments, which will run a choice of Windows, Linux, or other Unix OS.

But despite this flurry of vertical market activity, many observers say that Linux still faces some steep challenges ahead as an OS for retail store environments, particularly at the POS.

Over the past year, Microsoft has come on quite strong with a new software product called WEPOS (Windows Embedded Point of Service), plus more and more back-end .NET technology, noted Paula Rosenblum, an analyst at the Aberdeen Group, during an off-the-cuff conversation at the show.

For its part, Microsoft used this year's NRF convention as a forum for announcing that gargantuan retailer Target Stores is about to embark on a company-wide deployment of the .NET Framework, Windows Server 2003, and SQL Server 2005 involving all 1,400 of its stores.

"What you've got here, essentially, is a very high-powered marketing operation--meaning Microsoft--versus Linux," said Greg Hill, president of IHL Consulting, a market analyst firm specializing in retail technology, during another interview.

With WEPOS, Microsoft also introduced a new POS software licensing model that makes the earlier price advantage of Linux quite a bit more arguable, according to Hill

On the server side, Microsoft tends to hold an edge with retailers who have store-level personnel already in place trained in Windows management.

On the other hand, however, Linux is getting avid advocacy by department chain C-level execs who firmly believe in open source software, the industry analyst told LinuxPlanet.

Linux and Windows proponents alike are particularly interested in replacing old IBM 4690 legacy POS--which haven't changed substantially since the days of DOS--with newer Web-enabled front end technology.

Outside of Circuit City, 360Commerce is also supplying Java-based, SOA-enabled retail management software to Pep Boys and Urban Outfitters, two other big store chains planning to install 100-percent Linux implementations at their store branches.

But 360's software is also "OS-agnostic," supporting environments that include Windows, Macintosh, and 4690 in addition to Linux at the POS alone, said Jerry Rightner, 360's CTO, during another interview.

"The choice of OS is something we leave to the customer," Rightner told LinuxPlanet.

IBM's new Systems Solutions for Retail Stores will first be sold in two-way AMD- and IBM Power-based blade configurations for very large retail chains, said Ubay Watwe, IBM's program director for xSeries servers and blade center solutions, in another interview.

IBM expects to follow on with later with two- and four-way Intel x86-based servers for smaller retailers, according to Watwe.

Big Blue worked with Symbol Technologies to integrate the blade servers with Symbol's WS5120 wireless LAN switch, for support of in-store applications such as customer kiosks and PDA-based inventory management.

The week before the NRF show, also in New York, Symbol previewed an upcoming forklift-mounted RFID reader. In a meeting with LinuxPlanet at the press conference, Chris McGugan, Symbol's senior director for product managerment, said that IBM's blade server will also be able to implement the SW5120 switch for WiFi communicatiions with the Windows CE-enabled forklift reader, for use in retail warehouses.

IBM's new retail-oriented servers will be available bundled with the company's Store Integration Framework (SIF), a software framework that operates with IBM middleware.

IBM also produces the IBM Retail Environment for SUSE Linux (IRES), a product that uses Novell's Linux Point of Service (POS) as its foundation. "But we can work with Red Hat, too," Watwe told LinuxPlanet.

Beyond Windows, Sun's new retail server solution, the Sun Retail Store Processor, supports Solaris 10 and HP-UX, along with both Red Hat and Novell SUSE Linux, said Bob Ganley, Sun's market center manager for retail, in an interview.

Sun also unveiled the Sun Retail Integration Software Architecture, a software solution designed to help customers deploy multichannel architectures.

In terms of customers, Sun announced implementations with both Harrods and B&H Photo, two companies that will be deploying multichannel implementations on Solaris.

Also at the show in New York City, Aruba Networks introduced two new Linux-based devices for edge management of wireless LAN deployments in both retail stores and branch offices.

SOA middleware provider BEA Systems showcased its newly released AquaLogic High Performance Workspace for Retailers, along with its RFID Infastructure Solutions.

VeriFone launched VeriFone Visual Payments, a Web-based online payment system designed to work with both legacy and newer POS.

HP issued three announcements at the retail show: HP Retail Agility Services, for in-store maintenance of both HP and legacy POS systems; HP Retail Webcasting, for Webcasts either internally or to suppliers; and a third solution, geared to pharmaceutical use, that uses software from Cyclone Software for RFID product tracking.

Why are Linux and Windows vendors pouring so many resources right now into retail, a vertical market in which margins are thin and customers are notoriously slow to adopt new technologies?

Mostly because vendors perceive that wide demand for new technologies in retail stores is finally and truly emerging.

IBM's Watwe, for instance, maintained that current moves by large retailers to customer kiosks, wireless PDAs, Web-based video surveillance and other new technologies are going to require abundant storage within store environments

Yet for Linux deployments to trickle down to smaller retailers, it seems as though Linux vendors may also need to overcome some of the industry disillusionment that set in after an earlier wave of Linux retail deployments.

A few retailers, such as Burlington Coat Factory, first began migrating to Linux several years ago.

"There was hope at the time that Linux would really make headway into retail. But then, there was a certain sense of disappointment when Linux didn't really 'take off' from there," observed Aberdeen's Rosenblum.

The challenge is particularly steep for promoting Linux at the POS, possibly because so many people in the retail industry still view Linux mainly as a server-side OS only.

"We really don't see much Linux at the POS yet, although I do think it might catch on eventually," said one consultant attending the show, who added that he presently has only one customer deploying Linux at all.

"What needs to happen first is for one of the large retailers now using Linux to really start championing Linux at the POS level," the retail consultant told LinuxPlanet.

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