Retail Chain Makes Huge Linux Buy

In what could be the largest commercial deployment of its kind to date, IBM last week announced that it's selling 15,200 Linux-based servers to a Japanese convenience-store chain.

The Linux servers, part of IBM's new eServer xSeries, will be used in about 7,600 Lawson Inc. convenience stores in Japan, according to IBM. It will also run the installation, using remote monitoring software and services.

The servers, which will power the stores' existing touch-screen-equipped "Loppi" kiosks, will expand options for customers. The new technology will enable shoppers to download music, movies and other Web content in addition to booking airline and concert tickets at the kiosks.

Steve Sollazzo, vice president of Linux strategy at IBM, said the deal shows "firm evidence that Linux is really beginning to ascend to the enterprise."

IBM and Lawson wouldn't reveal the value of the deal, nor would they announce what version of Linux the servers will run. IBM offers distributions of Linux from Caldera Systems Inc., Red Hat Inc., TurboLinux Inc. and SuSE AG.

However, Red Hat spokeswoman Melissa London said Durham, N.C.-based Red Hat is providing the Linux software that IBM will use in the Lawson servers.

"Obviously, we're pretty excited about it," London said. "It's great for Linux."

Two servers will be installed each store to provide redundancy, Sollazzo said. IBM support personnel in Japan will be linked to the stores electronically to allow remote monitoring and service, leaving store employees free to concentrate on customers.

The servers are expected to be installed by March.

Al Gillen, an analyst at International Data Corp. in Framingham, Mass., said the deal is significant for IBM and Linux.

"It's a pretty big chunk of machines" being used by a very visible company, Gillen said. "We're seeing Linux being used in places where you might not have seen it happen two years ago."

The agreement is also important because it shows that a commercial enterprise has the confidence to deploy a Linux-based system in a key part of its business, Gillen said. Lawson's comfort is probably partly attributable to the fact that IBM has a global service and support network that includes the IBM Linux Support Center in Tokyo, he said.

"That will surely give [Lawson] a lot more confidence," said Gillen. "That's one of the things Linux has needed."

Eye-Catching News

Bill Claybrook, an analyst at Aberdeen Group Inc. in Boston, said this is the biggest Linux deal he has heard about.

"It's such a big deal that so many [Linux] servers are being sold to such a large customer that it sort of catches everyone's eye," Claybrook said. "It's a perception at least that Linux is now being more widely accepted."

Claybrook said the deal is good because it highlights a kiosk-based application that will be a good showplace for what Linux can do for retailers.

The Linux-based, in-store terminals will also give Lawson customers real-time news and information from Internet feeds and communications satellites, according to IBM.

The Loppi terminals currently in Lawson stores use Microsoft Corp.'s Windows operating system. The Linux servers wil augment the existing Windows use.

Based in Osaka, Lawson is one of Japan's largest convenience store chains. A company spokesman in Japan couldn't be reached for comment.

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