October 12, 2004

Rouse's ousts SCO for OSS

Author: Tina Gasperson

At Rouse's Supermarkets in Louisiana, it was just another July day in 2004. Customers placed their summer grocery selections on the conveyor belts; cashiers scanned them and collected the amount due using their touch-screen terminals, just like always.
But underneath the hustle and bustle at the checkout lanes, a silent revolution had taken place. Even though their PC-based cash registers seemed the same, the operating system that all the technology rested on had changed from SCO Unixware to Linux.And even though it was business as usual for the frontline employees, vice president Tommy Rouse knew things were very different.

Rouse's Supermarkets has been a family owned and operated grocery chain since 1959, when Tommy Rouse's father started with one small store. The younger Rouse grew up living next door to the store, and so naturally he feels "deeply involved" in everything that happens with the business, which today has expanded to 15 stores.

Rouse's has been utilizing ACR Retail point-of-sale (POS) systems since 1991. ACR, based in Jacksonville, Fla., has been providing software and systems integrations for grocery and drug stores since 1975.

ACR ported its ACR 5000 POS software to Linux about three years ago; before that, the company had worked with Linux for two years in a testing environment. When it came time for Rouse's to upgrade its POS systems, ACR president and CEO John Huffman suggested thin clients and a server running ACR 5000 on Linux.

Tommy Rouse wasn't a stranger to Linux. His IT staff had been using it for back office operations for several years, coding custom applications for data storage and retrieval. That experience, coupled with the desire to upgrade clunky Microsoft-powered boxes at each register to easily maintainable thin clients, made it easy for Rouse's to say "yes" to Huffman's suggestion.

In June 2003, Rouse and Huffman launched a single test store to "feel their way around it," according to Rouse. By May 2004, they were ready to start rolling out the new system to the rest of the stores, and the switch was complete by July.

For Rouse, the top benefit Linux brings to the company is lower initial cost and lower overhead. Huffman agreed, citing the flexibility his customers have when choosing Linux as the base OS.

"[With Linux] we can supply the functionality from the server and leave the client utterly dumb," Huffman said. The thin client "evolution" has resulted in drastically lower component costs, making the terminals so economical as to become almost "disposable." Not only that, but stores like Rouse's no longer need to hire highly paid technical people, since no special training is required to replace a thin client if something goes wrong. "Rouse's keeps a couple of spare terminals in the back. If one breaks, all you have to do is plug it in -- no software installation or configuration," Huffman said.

Another benefit to using Linux is the flexibility it allows when selecting server iron. Rouse was pleased that he and his staff were able to build their own servers for less than $500 each. Because of the low cost, Rouse was able to install a separate cold backup server in most of the stores. "If we lose a server we can back that one in remotely just by making a couple of quick software changes," he said.

Huffman is enthusiastic about the future of Linux in the POS space. The key, he said, is the ability to completely remove the operating system from the thin clients, something proprietary operating system providers do not allow, since that would cut deeply into their revenue. "Microsoft is trying to do thin clients, but they've got to keep their software in there," Huffman said. "They don't want to give it up. They live on the desktop and if that's eliminated, they lose their market. They're very desperate to keep some intelligence in their terminals. With Linux, we can do thin clients for effectively no cost, and Microsoft can't. I love it."

Tina Gasperson has been writing about business and technology since 1997.

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