September 6, 2002

Burlington Coat Factory gets deeper into Linux

-By Mitch Wagner -

Burlington Coat Factory is trying on Linux as a replacement for aging Sequent servers that run its line-of-business applications.
The retail chain hopes to install Oracle 9i Rack database software on IBM servers, with management software provided by PolyServe and Hitachi storage. The company cleared a milestone last week as IBM validated the technology stack; the results have been submitted to Oracle for certification, says Mike Prince, Burlington Coat vice president and chief information officer.

No firm timetable or cost evaluation has been put in place for the move, but the company hopes to be done by this time next year, Prince says. "We'd like to do it incrementally, as we have capacity crunches," he adds.

This isn't the company's first experiment with Linux. Burlington Coat is well under way in its deployment of Linux on point-of-sale terminals, having replaced aging DOS terminals with Linux boxes in 40 percent of its 324 stores nationwide. Burlington Coat hopes to have Linux installed on POS systems in about half its stores by year end.

For Burlington Coat, choosing Linux was a simple matter of cost. The company has been happy with its Sequent NUMA-Q servers, but IBM bought Sequent three years ago and has stopped significant upgrades of the line.

Burlington Coat would like to replace its Sequent servers both to boost capacity, and to allow the company to upgrade to the latest version of Oracle, Version 9i, with greater support for clustering leading to greater robustness.

"I'm not sure what we would do if we had the option of staying on Sequent," Prince says. "We were pretty happy with Sequent, but they really are lame-duck boxes. They are at the end of a generation and nobody is going to port any new software to it."

But he praised IBM support. "IBM has been unbelievable in working with us on this. IBM stood on their heads to do things for us -- they've been a dream to work with."

Linux on Intel is significantly less expensive than competitive technology from Sun Microsystems or Windows, Prince says. While Solaris is a good operating system, Sun hardware is more expensive than Intel servers, he says, and Windows requires more maintenance than either Unix or Linux. "We think Linux boxes are more standalone, they run forever, the Linux box doesn't require the handholding of Windows," Prince said. "And of course, we save the cost of the OS upfront, which with Microsoft, is getting to be substantial these days."

Burlington Coat also uses Linux in the data center for infrastructure operations such as directory servers.

The point-of-sale systems at the Burlington Coat stores are the company's major Linux project, with rollout of Linux POS systems to the stores starting two years ago. New stores are getting Linux POS systems as the stores are built, and the POS systems in old stores are getting new Linux systems when the stores are renovated.

The Linux systems replace legacy POS systems running on DOS 3. Initially, Burlington Coat is running the POS systems using a port of the same C code that ran on DOS. Porting the code was easy. "A lot of the libraries we're using in POS were common to Unix. It mostly compiled and ran. It was really clean C code," Prince says.

360Commerce is writing Burlington Coat a new POS application, with a pilot planned for spring 2003. The relationship with 360Commerce started a year ago, and a pilot was initially scheduled for this fall, but the pilot was delayed as other projects took precedence, such as a gift card system, procurement and new human resource systems.

The POS terminals are from Wincor Nixdorf. Back-office servers are from Dell. Each store runs about a half-dozen back-office servers.

Burlington Coat is using Red Hat Linux.

"We picked Red Hat because they are a market leader and because I knew people there and because it is what we got started with ... we knew them and were comfortable with them," Prince says.

He added, "We picked Dell because they were willing to make a commitment to support Linux. Mike Dell called me and gave me his personal commitment. Nobody else, among the major players, was willing to do this a couple of years ago. Hard to believe today, isn't it?"

Each store has a Sun server that provides file service, a price database, receiving applications, and support for handheld computers from Symbol Technologies with built-in scanners used for inventory control. Burlington Coat hopes to migrate the Sun servers to Linux eventually, but is in no rush, because the Sun servers are still functioning adequately, Prince says.

Burlington Coat is also deploying a stored-value card system in its stores for customer credits. The Datamark Technologies system now runs on Burlington Coat's Linux POS computers, and Burlington Coat hopes to eventually port the technology to its older DOS POS computers.

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