Low-cost Linux is reliable, easy to support

More retailers are using Linux to run their point-of-sale systems. Find out how Burlington Coat Factory switched from DOS to Linux without suffering technology shock.

Switching from DOS to Linux at the point of sale wasn't a case of technology shock for Burlington Coat Factory because the company had already been using Unix in many of its mission-critical systems.

The company has a long history of using Unix in its Burlington, N.J., headquarters data center for a variety of Oracle databases, mail servers, and other systems. Two IBM NUMA-Q 2000 enterprise servers (each with 12 to 16 500MHz processors) host Oracle 8i databases running on IBM's Dynix, a version of Unix for the NUMA series of computers. The servers function as the main information conduit between headquarters and the stores, communicating via a frame-relay-based wide area network.

The idea that Linux might be a serious alternative to Unix arose in 1998, when several summer interns chose to use older PCs running Linux rather than available Sun Unix machines. The interns insisted they could achieve the same goals at a lower cost, with greater efficiencies. And because many of the company's other critical systems ran on Unix, including in-store and headquarters-based servers, compatibility wasn't an issue.

"It fit right into our Unix-based networking system and the rest of our environment essentially seamlessly," says Percy Young, Burlington Coat Factory's director of store systems. "And it gave us a lower-cost hardware base and a fairly low-cost operating system environment."

The remaining issue was support, but that concern soon faded as company executives found that Linux support was far superior to Windows support. "We had a problem with a printer driver at one point and posted a request for information [on the Internet]. We got back a response from the person who wrote the driver with a fix within 48 hours," Young says.

The primary benefits Linux provides over Windows and DOS are security, dependability, and the lack of a licensing fee, says Greg Buzek, president of retail consulting firm IHL Consulting Group, in Franklin, Tenn. "It's a strong, solid operating system because you can pick and choose the components you want and you can limit the functionality in terms of what the operating system is doing," he says.

Today, Burlington Coat Factory is in the midst of porting all of its POS terminals--between eight and 16 at each of the company's nearly 300 stores--to the Linux environment. The rollout should be complete within a year, says CIO Mike Prince.

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