May 4, 2006

Sporting goods retailer now sporting Linux everywhere

Author: Tina Gasperson

When Backcountry.com, an
outdoor sporting goods retailer, was looking for shopping cart
software, it picked an open source application called Interchange. It worked so well
that the company began an enterprise-wide migration to open source
software that has Linux running everywhere, from the servers to the
desktops.

Right from the beginning, Backcountry.com used Red Hat Enterprise
Linux. It brought in one of Red Hat's consultants, Dave Jenkins, to
help find shopping cart software that was open enough for the
company's needs, but that didn't come with an outrageous price tag. "I
set up their initial game plans for them," says Jenkins, who
eventually left Red Hat to become Backcountry.com's chief technology
officer. "They were looking around and realized there weren't any good
ecommerce engines with reasonable price ranges and flexibility -- the
flexibility was almost more important than the money." For
Backcountry, flexibility was synonymous with openness.

Backcountry.com got its start in 1998, right before the "dot-com
bomb," according to Jenkins, and management was able to predict the
coming market implosion. In order for Backcountry.com to survive, its
infrastructure had to be open -- "they had to have the code for
themselves, had to be able to 'hack themselves,' to implement whatever
screwball idea they might come up with," so that Backcountry.com
wouldn't risk losing information stored in proprietary applications
that couldn't be simply lifted out of the code, if the company decided
it didn't want to use that vendor anymore.

Jenkins has continued to find ways to implement open source solutions
throughout Backcountry's infrastructure. The latest change is the
launch of the Zimbra open source
Web-based collaboration suite. Backcountry is using Zimbra for mail,
collaboration, and calendaring. Previously the company's email was
served by a remote ISP. "We officially rolled out Zimbra six weeks ago
to the entire company," Jenkins says. "We were one of the early beta
testers." Backcountry.com didn't need collaboration in the early days,
but the company has grown from "40 people in a small garage to 250
people in two locations," Jenkins says.

"We were playing with Open-Xchange for five or six
weeks and we were just about to contract with one of the consulting
firms to do a roll out." Jenkins hesitated at the last minute because
he felt that Open-Xchange was "just copying Microsoft Exchange. Why go
with a platform that's copying an eight-year-old piece of crap?" he
says. "Why not go with something new and sexy?" He and the
Backcountry.com staff decided to look a bit further, found Zimbra
Collaboration Suite. Jenkins liked the AJAX-based interactivity of
Zimbra. Backcountry began testing it with 25 users, who also fell in
love with some of the same features that lured Jenkins, such as the
interactive calendar that renders pages with one mouse click and
"zimlet" plugins that let users do on-the-fly Wikipedia and Yahoo!
Maps searches.

Now that Jenkins has finished rolling out Zimbra to the entire
company, he's working on integrating it with Interchange, to provide
even more readily accessible information for staff members to
collaborate on, such as customer management and accounting and invoice
information.

Just about every Backcountry.com employee is running Fedora Linux on
the desktop -- 50 workstations in the warehouse and 60 in the call
center. "We have a policy that any machine replaced doesn't get
Windows put back on it," Jenkins says. "It's Linux migration by
attrition." Jenkins manages support for an inconsistent mix of desktop
operating systems by utilizing the vast skills of his IT staff, who
are well-versed in both Windows and Linux environments. The transition
has been invisible to the users, he says, because all the server and
desktop applications are accessed via a browser. "As long as I can get
a browser window we're good to go."

Jenkins plans to continue implementing open source solutions wherever
he can at Backcountry.com. He says that the company has saved millions
of dollars in upfront software costs and recurring licensing fees. "We
pay Red Hat for Enterprise Linux, but that's my only real cost. We're
always looking at open source. If [an application meets] a core
competency, we find it, adapt it, and bolt it in."

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