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Hannaford Bros. c.i.o. Bill Homa is not afraid of Linux. When Homa learned that his point-of-sale provider would stop supporting his nine-year-old application, he began looking for a new solution. "Retailers do not like to replace their point-of-sale systems," he says. "They do it maybe every 10 years or so, sometimes longer. So this was a very important decision for us. Whatever we chose we were going to have to live with for the next decade."
Since part of the company's overall strategy was to move to a thin-client architecture in the store, Homa decided to explore some thin-client solutions for his POS—something he never would have considered a few years ago because of poor data communications. "Historically, retailers have had slow data communications at the store," he says. "Although satellite was cheap, it was slow and unreliable. Every time a cloud passed by you would lose connectivity in the store.
"Since then, however, data communication speed has increased dramatically, the cost has come down, and reliability has improved."
Because of this, Hannaford has been able to move the bulk of its stores' processing power for non-POS applications to the corporate office—reducing the number of servers needed at store level—and employed Web-based or Java-based thin-client technology in the stores.
A thin-client application is one in which the server side is responsible for generating the user interface views into the application. The client side usually consists only of generic rendering software, such as a Web browser.
Homa had dabbled in Linux, having used some Linux-based IBM NetStations as well as a Linux-based scale controller from ADC. So he thought this would be a great opportunity to look for a POS solution that included both Linux and thin-client. "We weren't intimidated by Linux, because Linux is a first cousin of Unix, and we have a ton of Unix expertise in-house," he says.
For the hardware supporting the thin-client solution, Homa wanted a system without moving parts. "The advantage of no moving parts is that there is nothing to fail," he says. "Retail is a very dirty environment. If you have no moving parts—no hard drive, no fan, no floppy drive, no CD-ROM—there is nothing that can go wrong from a hardware perspective; dirt isn't going to bother it."
Slow and cool
A Linux-based operating system went hand-in-hand with that idea. In order for a POS system to operate without a fan, the processor that runs it has to operate at a slower speed. Most operating systems require fast processors that run too hot to be used without a fan, so a Linux-based system was key. "You could run it on a 386 processor if you wanted to," says Homa.
"The whole idea is to lower your costs. If you have no moving parts and no hard drive, it is a much less expensive hardware platform. Such a system would be much more reliable, so service and maintenance costs would be lower."
Homa approached several manufacturers to see if they could build POS hardware with no moving parts to run a Linux-based operating system. One after another, these companies said it couldn't be done. Finally, Wincor-Nixdorf accepted the challenge. "They had a prototype, and they had some experience with Linux, which proved to be invaluable," says Homa.
The result was the Wincor-Nixdorf BEETLE /S, a fanless, sealed-chassis, point-of-sale system that uses a modular external power supply for easy serviceability and compact flash technology instead of a hard disk to eliminate all moving parts. All price lookup files reside in virtual RAM on the system, which provides a fast response time, since the BEETLE clients do not have to access an internal disk drive or a central server for information.
"Even though it is a thin-client solution, this configuration could operate for days offline if it lost connectivity to the server," says Homa. "It will store everything in flash memory; the system has 512 MB of flash memory and 512 MB of RAM. The transaction log and the price and item files are all in the flash memory, so once connectivity is regained, it would automatically resync with the server."
Running on top of the Linux operating system is the Retalix StoreLine POS solution, a hardware-independent application that addresses various grocery functionality requirements. One of the major factors in Homa's decision to choose Retalix was its flexibility in working on different operating systems. "All of the operating companies within the Delhaize Group, using a common code base of StoreLine, will have the freedom to choose between a Microsoft Windows or Linux operating system, while maintaining consistent functionality and promotions globally," he says.
One requirement for the system was that peripherals had to connect to the POS via USB cable to allow for faster connectivity, as well as the ability to hot-swap peripherals—replace them without powering down the system if they fail.
However, no drivers had been developed. "The peripheral vendors knew that they would eventually have to write Linux drivers; they just hadn't been pushed yet by people like me," says Homa.
The peripherals included an Epson TM-H6000II printer, a Symbol LS 4007 hand-held scanner, an NCR 7875 scanner/scale, and a Hypercom ICE 5500 payment terminal. All except the Hypercom terminal would be connected by USB, and the Hypercom terminal was to be connected via an RS232 serial interface. Each vendor wrote drivers for both Linux and USB ports, as did Red Hat. Retalix had to port its entire application to Linux.
Hannaford's first store went live with the solution in February, and Homa was very pleased with the results. "Our tender time has decreased drastically," says Homa. "We expect the rings per minute to increase as well. This helps to drive down labor cost and improves our customer service levels, as customers will make it through the line faster."
The combination of increased throughput and reliability will allow the removal of one lane from each store, which Homa expects will save Hannaford a great deal of money.
'Easier to support'
Some vendors have knocked Linux as being difficult to support, but Homa says that is completely unfounded. "The solution we put together requires no Linux experience, because the Linux is hidden from us," he says. "Regardless, our experience with Linux is that it is easier to support than Unix and far easier to support than Windows. We have far more Linux and Unix servers than Windows servers, but use half the staff to support them."
The openness of the new POS system allows it to be managed as if it were any other device on the network—a great contrast to the proprietary system that was in place. That had its own network, its own protocol, and its own operating system.
Monitoring of the new system is automated via IBM's Tivoli software. "Everything from time clocks in our distribution center to the lanes—and even within the lanes to the printers and other peripheral devices—can be managed from a central location, and we can be proactive if we see some errors," says Homa. "Soon we will be working on a conduit from our network management solution to Fujitsu's support center. It will be automated, so if there is a problem at one of our lanes, it will open a call automatically at Fujitsu and they will do a dispatch."
Hannaford's experience may be a peek at the future of retail point-of-sale technology. According to a new study by IHL Consulting Group in Franklin, Tenn., the number of retail point-of-sale terminals running Linux in North America increased 185 percent in 2002. While this still represents only 4 percent of total shipments (Microsoft Windows operating systems were 69 percent of total shipments and the IBM 4690 was 17 percent), it is quickly gaining acceptance.
The IBM 4690 operating system still dominates Tier 1 retail, with more than 80 percent installed base share among the grocery, mass merchandise, drug, and warehouse club channels. But POS vendors such as Wincor-Nixdorf, Fujitsu Transaction Solutions, and IBM itself are adopting an operating system-agnostic approach to their base POS units so retailers have a wide choice in their POS decisions.
And grocers are investing in them. During the past 12 months alone, Retalix, in addition to signing up Hannaford Bros., has enlisted Publix, K-VA-T, and Schnuck Markets as customers for its StoreLine open-architecture POS application.
It is always difficult to predict what the future of any technology will look like, but if the movement toward open systems continues to pick up steam, there is one thing that can be said about the future: It is wide open.