A Linux installation of enterprise proportions

Burlington Coat Factory Warehouse needed a new operating system so its stores could deploy new applications and redeploy existing applications and services to take advantage of a Web-based architecture.

At the same time, the company wanted to reduce costs and capitalize on its long-standing success with Unix, says Michael Prince, vice president and CIO. After comparing Linux, Windows and Solaris, Burlington Coat Factory chose Red Hat Linux for use in more than 1,250 systems at 250 stores. The project was completed in 2000 in just over four months and showed the viability of Linux for widespread use across an enterprise, Prince says. The company also achieved its goal of setting up an infrastructure that allows the use of Web-based applications.

Technology

The Linux boxes are desktops and servers, as well as stand-alone boxes for back-office functions like shipping, receiving and other order processing. Linux is now deployed on the back end at all Burlington Coat Factory stores. Because of the project's success so far, Linux will be deployed during the next few years on the front end in point-of-sale systems, says Prince.

Business benefits

Because the IT team had years of experience with Unix, the transition to Linux was a natural one, says Prince. "Linux is as much Unix as anything," he says. "A lot of our choice of Linux was really a choice of Unix over Windows. We had a technical team that was really comfortable with Linux."

And because the operating system is inexpensive, requires the purchase of only one copy and uses standard industry hardware, the risks were minimal. If the software didn't work as advertised, the company could have kept the hardware and bought another operating system, says Prince. Another benefit, he says, is that Linux environments typically have fewer virus and security problems than their counterparts, thus reducing support costs.

The move to Linux was an evolution for Burlington Coat Factory, says Dan Kusnetzky, an analyst at market research firm IDC in Framingham, Mass. The company was previously a poster child for SCO Unix, so the Linux installation was realistic and easy.

"This is one place where Linux is beginning to shine, in retail in a replicated environment," he says. "Burlington was one of the earliest examples, and we're seeing more of them now." Other retailers using Linux include Amazon.com Inc., The Home Depot Inc., Boscov's Department Stores and Lawson Inc. convenience stores in Japan.

Bottom-line payback

By choosing Linux over proprietary operating systems, costs were greatly reduced, says Prince. There were no high licensing fees, and remote administration is easier. "The concept of logging in to a remote system and running programs like you are [a local user] is the biggest win," Prince says. Another huge payback is reliability. "It's a very stable and efficient operating system. It doesn't crash," he says.

Lessons learned

Selling the project to upper management wasn't too difficult, says Prince. "The fact is, if Linux had required proprietary hardware that would not have been recyclable . . . then it would have been a tough sell, given that at the time, no major retailer" had adopted the then-fledgling Linux, he says.

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