Thin and Fit

It's not a completely sure thing, but the odds are good enough to make it a smart bet: the days of retailers using full computers, complete with hard drives and memory, at every station in the enterprise are numbered. And the reasons for running thin aren't difficult enough to require much computing power to understand. Retailers may be making the move to thin-client architecture to increase reliability and hardware longevity, centralize and concentrate control and IT staff, and reduce costs throughout the operation. As a result, some are calling the move to thin client retailing's next wave.

At this point, the wave is more a large swell than a tsunami, but as with any wave, most of the activity is happening out of sight. Also, once a wave's momentum has begun, it can quickly become unstoppable.

Evolutionary Step
It may help to see thin client as the next evolutionary step in retailing, especially in terms of POS. At one time, the standard setup was a mainframe driving a network of dumb terminals. Then came the PC revolution, giving retailers the ability to put full, working computers at every station, and to run the now-standard client/server system, sometimes called the distributed computing model. This has given rise to a multitude of applications, databases and operating systems at every level of retail.
Even though the cost of an individual PC has dropped, it's still pretty pricey to install fully functioning PCs throughout an enterprise. The cost is magnified by the complexity of the distributed model.

If each terminal runs a full OS and software suite, then each terminal is a potential crash-and-fix. Further complicating matters is the fact that even the simplest software upgrade requires installation in each and every terminal that requires that software. This has been somewhat mollified through the use of Internet-based client/server applications, but even that doesn't solve the problem of hardware that must be replaced and repaired.

Compact and Affordable
Thin-client systems such as those offered by Tomax and Triversity, have been made feasible by the development of powerful, reliable, inexpensive and secure wide-area networks (WANs). The ultimate thin-client system may seem to harken back to the old mainframe model, with all applications hosted at a central server. But by allowing the use of highly affordable and small-footprint terminals, most retailers appreciate thin client's ability to integrate with legacy terminals without compromising performance.

Multiple servers can be used for redundancy, with a single server in each store providing insurance against a pipeline failure. Compared to client/server systems, thin client provides faster application deployment, improved administration access, reliable security, improved performance and dramatic cost containment.

"In retail IT," says Robin Lynas, chief information officer for Mark's Work Wearhouse, a wholly owned subsidiary of Canadian Tire Corporation, with 321 stores throughout Canada, "managing costs is critical. Our margins are under more pressure than other industries."

In 2003, Mark's Work Wearhouse completed a rollout of a thin client, Java POS system from Retek. The system features Retek Integrated Store Operations and Retek POS running on IBM SurePOS 500 terminals with Intel Celeron processors and Redhat Linux 7.3 OS. The central servers are IBM xSeries Servers, Naming and Application layers, and IBM iSeries Partition running IBM's DB2 Universal Database and Redhat Linux 7.3.

"This has been the most powerful IT project I've been associated with," Lynas says. "We've reduced our POS operating expenses by 50 percent, and new store opening costs by 30 percent, while improving customer service." He also reports that

Powerful Success
Brad Friedman, vice president of information services at Burlington Coat Factory, says that his company has seen similar benefits from a complete conversion to thin-client POS. "Our legacy systems had just run out of gas," he says. Burlington Coat Factory upgraded to Wincor Nixdorf Beetle S hardware, with mix-and-match peripherals including the Epson THM6000II printer and check reader, Metrologic barcode scanners, NEC Mitsubishi 15" LCD monitors, and Symbol/@pos debit terminals. Friedman says the company had a Java POS initiative moving forward, but chose instead to enhance the existing software, "that made the leap from DOS 3.3 to Linux," and move toward a Java-based environment as an upcoming phase.

"We have a greatly reduced failure rate at the POS stations," says Friedman. "The impact of the rollout on the business in the retail locations was minimal. Since we were implementing the same software in a different operating environment, there wasn't a great deal of training required. I couldn't be any happier with our current position at the POS in the stores."
The key to thin-client success remains the deployment of a secure WAN. Once the WAN is functional and a thin-client environment is in place, research by Gartner indicates resources can be leveraged to achieve up to 35 percent savings over a traditional configuration. Combine those potential savings with the other benefits of thin client and it's clear why this wave is getting bigger every day.

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