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Linux Dodges Microsoft In Retail Vertical Space

A Full-Court Press from Redmond

  • January 24, 2007
  • By Jacqueline Emigh

In the face of a big vertical marketing blitz by Microsoft, keenly evident at last week's National Retail Federation (NRF) show, several retailers in the "household name" category keep forging ahead with Linux implementations of their internal computer systems anyway. Linux-enabled appliances were also on hand at the nationwide expo in New York City, including an HD (high definition) video bridge from Avocent that played a large role in the NRF's annual "Store of the Future" demo.

"There are really three places where you'll see Linux in in-store systems: servers, POS (point-of-sale) systems, and embedded appliances," said Heinz McArthur of IBM, during an interview in the IBM booth on the NRF show floor.

In its booth, IBM showed Java-based retail store applications from ISVs such as Oracle, SAP, and PCMS running on POS terminals. As the server platform for these client applications, Big Blue chose an in-store blade server running Novell SLES (SUSE Linux Enterprise Server) 9, a product from the Linux distributor that announced a multifaceted partnership with Microsoft back in November. Server software also included Oracle BackOffice.

In fact, a number of IBM customers in the retail space continue to move ahead with "100 percent Linux" implementations of in-store systems, including large chains such as Circuit City, Best Buy, and clothing specialist Urban Outfitters. IBM, though, also supports Windows installations in retail.

"I do believe that Linux offers the advantage in TCO (total cost of ownership), as well as in reliability, stability, and security. But I also see Windows gaining some traction in retail," indicated McArthur, a member of the marketing technical support team for IBM's Retail Store Solutions.

Mentions of other major Linux implementations also cropped up elsewhere at the conference in Manhattan. Boscov's, for example, remains another strong Linux adherent, noted Dean E. Sheaffer, a senior VP for the department store chain, in an off-the-cuff conversation during an awards ceremony at the show.

West Coast-based supermarket chain Raleys also continues to use Linux, although its Linux deployment is now limited to servers only, said Raleys CIO Eric Wilson, in a conference session dubbed "CIO Innovators Forum."

Speaking with LinuxPlanet afterward, Wilson observed that vendor pricing for Linux support and maintenance contracts doesn't always run cheap.

"But we do think that, over time, Linux is the way to drive costs out of our implementations," the CIO told LinuxPlanet.

On the POS side, however, Raleys will now move to a Microsoft platform. NCR, a long-time maker of DOS-based POS systems, is currently "going to Windows," Wilson noted.

Indeed, during one of several keynotes at NRF's "Retail's Big Show 2007," Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer announced two new products in the "Microsoft Dynamics" family, Point of Sale 2.0 and Retail Management Systems 2.0.

Ballmer, who once worked as a product manager at Proctor & Gamble, also used the NRF stage to announce a deal with First Data Corp. and Hewlett-Packard around a PC-based POS and integrated payments applications, along with an alliance with NCR division Teradata for integration between Microsoft SQL Server Analysis Services and Teradata Enterprise Data Warehouse.

Several other Microsoft partners introduced new software, too. Wipro, for example, brought out a series of applications--including Corporate Portal, Store Manager KPI, and Sales and Marketing Analytics--which are intended to help retail managers visualize their daily operations.

Yet not all of those present with Windows applications expressed great joy over their relationships with Microsoft.

"We used to be a partner of Microsoft's until they bought Great Plains and SMS (Sales Management Systems). But now, Microsoft is our competitor. Microsoft likes to compete against its former partners," maintained Robert Brown, president of Spectrum Retail, speaking with LinuxPlanet on the show floor.

A string of company and product acquisitions involving Great Plains, SMS, Axapta, and other smaller software firms has helped Microsoft migrate into the retail arena, along with related areas such as SCM (supply chain management), CRM (customer relationship management) and ERP (enterprise resource planning).

Brown told LinuxPlanet that, to fend off Microsoft, Spectrum now targets its ProphetLine and Visual ProphetLine. POS/business systems mainly at niche markets such as the golf industry, apparel, and telecommunications, where Microsoft's applications are too "broad-based" to play very well.

At this point, the company president rather wishes that Spectrum's applications were based on Linux instead of Windows.

"That way, we could probably offer cost savings to customers, too. But I think it's really too late, now. We'd have to rewrite all of our applications for Linux," Brown told LinuxPlanet.

A number of other vendors at the show dealt with the platform issue by unveiling new software that will run on either Windows or Linux, typically through the use of Java.

Cognos, for example, brought out the Strategic Merchandise Planning Blueprint, a software-based framework for using planning, metrics and reporting to meet sales objectives and profitability goals.

Oracle, for its part, rolled out Oracle Retail Merchandising Standard Edition (SE), a merchandising application that runs on Linux, HP-UX, and IBM AIX. Several components of Oracle's new product are Java-based.

Some vendors say that decisions over whether to offer retail applications for the Linux environment are driven by customer demand.

"If a customer asks us to provide applications on Linux, we'll do so," said i2's Mohan Balachandram, during an interview with LinuxPlanet the previous week at a new subconference on the consumer electronics (CE) supply chain, held during the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas.

Nokia, for instance, is one i2 customer that's "really into Linux," according to Balachandran, who is i2's director of product management.

In the retail market on the whole, embedded appliances seem to hold out some of the biggest hope for Linux, at the moment.

"With embedded Linux, you can build appliances of various sizes, incorporating only those components you want to use," pointed out IBM's McArthur.

One of these appliances, Avocent's new Emerge PBX1000 HD Multipoint Extender is based on an embedded Linux 2.6 kernel, said Matt Nelson, director of marketing in Acocent's Connectivity and Control Division, during another interview with LinuxPlanet at the show in New York City.

Retail establishments using Avocent's Linux-enabled embedded appliance include 7-Eleven, Blockbuster, and Wendy's, according to Nelson.

The extender can be deployed as either a wired or wireless bridge, moving HD (high definition) video of up to 720 pixels, computer graphics of up to 1280-by-768 resolution, stereo audio, and control data from a single source to as many as eight receivers, maintaining AV (audio-visual) synchronization at each display.

Incorporating a built-in transmitter and receiver, the HD video appliance is designed to work over standard 10/100 Mbps wired Ethernet connections in addition to RF (radio frequency) links of up to 100 feet through walls or 1000 feet line of sight with optional directional antennae, Nelson said.

The NRF used Avocent's wireless extender to support digital signage and other high bandwidth audiovisual applications in its "Store of the Future," a display that included offerings ranging from a mobile inventory tablet from Symbol/Motorola, to a wall of 42-inch plasma monitors, to an application for virtually "trying on" clothes online.

"But we're also seeing an expansion of Linux in the [retail] data center," Nelson contended. Avocent's products for the data center run the gamut from its LANDesk network management software to KVM switches.

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