Matalan checks out Linux tills

Capgemini advised the UK retailer to run thousands of tills on Linux rather than Windows, as it is more secure and easier to support

UK retailer Matalan has migrated 2,800 tills to Linux.

Capgemini UK, which worked with Matalan on the migration, said that after evaluating Windows and Linux it advised the retailer to use Linux as it is easier to deploy and support in an electronic point of sale (EPOS) environment.

The evaluation compared the Retail Java point of sale application running on Windows XP with the same application running on IBM Retail Environment for SuSE Linux (IRES). The operating systems were run on 14 tills in a Matalan store over two months. Matalan's tills, which are IBM 4694 series machines, previously ran a proprietary operating system that was no longer supported.

Gunnar Menzel, a senior architect at Capgemini UK, said that the Linux tills were easier to deploy and support.

"For example, when one of the Linux tills had a problem with the keyboard an IBM team in the US were able to connect onto the till remotely and go onto the BIOS while the store was still trading. Within a day they had a fix," said Menzel.

"It's much more difficult to access the BIOS in Windows — as you have an abstraction layer that protects the hardware. With Linux you don't have an abstraction layer between you and the system so you have much more flexibility," he said.

Both Windows and Linux met the security requirements set by Matalan, but Linux was preferred by the retailer as it was less of a target for malicious code, according to Menzel. The evaluation began at the end of 2003 when the Blaster worm was wreaking havoc in companies. In contrast, there have been no serious outbreaks of Linux viruses in the wild, which gave the open source operating system a definite advantage in the eyes of Matalan executives, Menzel said.

The Linux tills also performed better than the Windows tills, as XP requires more processing power than the open source operating system — only 450Mhz was available on the tills. Windows XP Embedded (XPe), which has a smaller footprint — The amount of memory needed to load and run the operating system and any associated libraries — may have been more suitable for the tills than the standard version of XP. Matalan, however, did not want to use XPe as it was not considered sufficiently mature and extra work would have been required to apply XP service packs, said Menzel.

"Matalan knew how often Windows kicks out fixes, which couldn't be applied to XPe — you need to customise and test them first," he said.

The retailer has been running Linux on all of its tills since the end of 2004 and is "really happy" with the level of service, according to Menzel.

While Capgemini's work with Matalan has come out in favour of Linux, the consultancy conducted a study in 2003 which said the London Borough of Newham would be better off staying with Microsoft rather than migrating to Linux.

This study, which was funded by Microsoft but claimed to provide an objective and independent view, said that migrating to Linux could lead to security breaches, poor compatibility, decreased worker productivity and increased support costs, according to a copy of the study seen by ZDNet UK. The main figures comparing Linux and Microsoft in the study, which found that the cost savings of moving to Linux were half those of staying with Microsoft, were "not independently validated" by Capgemini.

Menzel defended this study, saying that Capgemini provides an independent view, but admitted "sometimes there are situations where you get together with the client and defend their data."

Matalan's successful adoption of Linux has changed the view of some Capgemini employees of Linux, according to Menzel. "Matalan is a good example. You need to prove to people inside [the company] that this [Linux] is something that can work," he said.

But Menzel still believes that Linux is not yet ready for the desktop. "Linux is a very good contender to work in some areas, but it still needs to catch up in certain areas, such as the desktop. In the retail environment it is fairly easy to go with Linux, but in the desktop it is harder in terms of features and functionality," said Menzel.

Menzel will be speaking about Matalan's Linux deployment at the LinuxWorld show in London next week.