Store chain is sold on Linux

By Lynn Haber

January 23, 2002

Boscov's Department Stores, the largest family-owned department store chain in the country with $1 billion in annual sales, began experiencing unexpectedly high costs associated with ongoing maintenance of its client/server environment a couple of years ago. For every 10-12 servers it installed, an additional technician was needed to help with management of databases, upgrades, and software issues; and providing disaster recovery for the growing client/server environment was complex and costly.

That prompted Harry Roberts, CIO and senior vice president at Boscov's, to consider Linux as an alternative. It was not love at first sight. Roberts wasn't sure how Linux would translate into a large enterprise system.

Less than 24 months later, Linux provides the 90-year-old retail business cost savings, reliability, and scalability, and is an important part of its long-term IT infrastructure strategy.

NT out, Linux in

Boscov's, with 36 locations in six states in the mid-Atlantic region, scrapped its client/server architecture and is in the process of consolidating 70 IBM NetFinity 8500 and 500 servers running Windows NT 4.0, on a recently purchased IBM zSeries 900 mainframe running SuSE Linux Enterprise Server 7 as a virtual machine. Boscov's is moving its invoice processing, gift registry, and an assortment of other file and database services from the NetFinity servers to Linux. Down the road, Boscov's hopes to move additional applications, including PeopleSoft and a suite of e-commerce products.

By running Linux as a virtual machine on the zSeries 900, which has the capability to divide a single server into multiple logical servers, Roberts leverages the resources of a single management environment, reducing the costs compared to running Linux on separate boxes.

"We expect to reduce the maintenance cost of our servers, reduce the number of technicians we need to manage and administer our computing infrastructure, decrease the complexity and cost of disaster recovery, improve scalability and reliability of our computing environment, and be able to handle spikes quickly," says Roberts. He expects to see a total savings of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

"We had a growing transaction base and saw the continued growth and expense as an opportunity to look around for a system upgrade," Roberts says.

What ultimately turned Roberts around when it came to Linux was the swell of industry support around the OS in terms of applications, technology, and services from Linux vendors, independent software vendors, and major systems vendors such as IBM, HP, and Compaq.

IBM in particular embraced Linux as a core piece of its strategy. IBM said it would devote millions of dollars to Linux initiatives, run it on all four server platforms, and provide equal support to Linux as it did to its other OSes.

After a lengthy talk with IBM, Roberts was sold on the possibilities of Linux for enterprise computing and, in June 2001, the company purchased a zSeries 900 from the vendor. Boscov's is in the final stage of testing one of its major applications, invoice processing, on the mainframe. The department store processes 1.6 million invoices per year. "This application has every issue--resource connectivity to the host, lots of calculations, it requires dedicated I/O, and is one of our mission critical applications," says Roberts, adding that if his IT team gets this application to work, the rest will be easy.

Fewer servers, more Linux apps

When the application testing is completed by the end of January, Brown plans to port 40 NetFinity servers to the z900, over a 45- to 90-day period. The remaining servers will be consolidated on the z900 as application vendors make their software available on Linux. He is already in discussions with PeopleSoft and Sybase, for example, and expects to continue his consolidation effort later in the year.

Boscov's also plans to move its e-commerce server, a Microsoft Site Server running SQL Server, to the new platform. "We'll run WebSphere and DB2 under Linux on the z900," he says. Because traffic on the company's e-commerce site is growing at a rate of 150% per annum, Roberts is concerned about scalability, but he says the z900 can be expanded easily as needed. That's because when the device is delivered, IBM ships it with spare engines in place that can be turned on via a phone call. At that point, Roberts can decide how to dedicate the additional processing power.

The company had also been running an IBM S/390 mainframe in conjunction with its client/server environment, which, in fact, processed 65% to 75% of the company's transactions, including sales, financials, inventory, and other general raw data processing. All that processing was migrated from the S/390 to the zSeries mainframe.

Boscov's plans to update its point-of-sale (POS) system, which includes 3,000 terminals, sometime in 2003. "Today we run NCR 7052s on DOS and POS processing software from Cornell-Mayo Associates for checkout and sales processing. However, we're going it to replace it with Linux," says Roberts. The POS application would cost about $200 per terminal to upgrade in the Windows environment. Roberts expects to save 10% to 25% on the initial investment in the POS setup, which will include upgraded hardware. He anticipates that ongoing costs will be less than half what it would cost to support a Windows environment.

Averting disaster

Adopting a Linux strategy allows Boscov's Department Store to avert disaster in more ways than one: it relieves the company's IT department of the increasing burden of supporting a client/server environment and, by consolidating servers on an IBM zSeries 900 running Linux as a virtual machine, the company simplifies and reduces the cost of disaster recovery.

"Disaster recovery for client/server is a nightmare," says Harry Roberts, CIO and senior vice president at Reading, Pa.-based Boscov's, noting that there's no guarantee that the disaster site will have comparable systems to those used by Boscov's. By contrast, providing disaster recovery for a single mainframe is easy, since it represents one point of load and one box. "By consolidating our servers on the z900 we will greatly reduce the complexity of disaster recovery," he says.

The department store saw its disaster recovery costs nearly double in the past 12-18 months as it migrated transaction processing for retail, purchase order management, gift registry, and price management from an OS/390 mainframe to a client/server architecture. Roberts expects to see a 25%-30% reduction in disaster recovery costs, or tens of thousands of dollars, with the move to the mainframe/Linux environment.

Lynn Haber reports on technology and business issues from Norwell, Mass.

Copyright 2002