LJ Interviews Kent McNall of Apropos

A talk with the head of a company using Informix SE for Linux in a point-of-sale application almost before it was announced.

Phil Hughes, my boss and publisher of Linux Journal, talked to Kent McNall at the Informix Conference held in Seattle in August. Being impressed with the fact that Apropos was already using Informix for Linux in their point-of-sale products on the day of the Informix announcement, Phil suggested I interview Kent and find out how Apropos came to be using Linux. I “talked” to Kent by e-mail on September 3.

Marjorie: Tell us a bit about yourself.

Kent: I am the President of Apropos Retail Management Systems of Lynnwood, WA. I'm 36 years old, and I've been in the computer industry since age 20, when (like Bill Gates) I dropped out of college to join the computer revolution. Since my earliest days in this industry I have gravitated towards multi-user business solutions on new-generation platforms, primarily UNIX-based. I have also gravitated towards the retail industry; the first software program I wrote was a point-of-sale system.

During my career, I've worked with almost every type of PC and PC operating system: CP/M, MP/M, many flavors of UNIX, Apple II/III/Lisa/Mac, and every generation of IBM PC (including Junior). I've worked with Novell and Windows 3/3.1/3.11/95/98/NT3.51/NT4.0.

After selling, installing and supporting systems for several companies throughout the 1980s, I formed Apropos Retail Management Systems in March of 1989 with my partners Sten Karlsen and Gary Gill. Originally chartered as a general business systems provider, we transformed the company into a software development company in 1992, developing enterprise-wide retail management solutions for small- to mid-sized chain retailers. Our systems revolve around all the most difficult tasks computers do for us today: wide area networks, data synchronization and very large databases—all with a requirement of 100% uptime from our clients.

Marjorie: What event first brought Linux to your attention?

Kent: I have many associates and acquaintances the world over who have met through the Internet. Linux is extremely popular on the Internet. A friend of mine from Poland brought it to my attention in 1996 when I was trying to bring up a web server. He told me about Linux and Apache; I was off and running.

Marjorie: What sort of evaluation procedures helped you decide to use Linux as the operating system of choice in your business?

Kent: The most important evaluation criteria, to this day, is word of mouth. A lot of people I know are using Linux in mission-critical, high-uptime environments. A high percentage of the Internet is running on Linux right now. Our own evaluation including testing, of course. We were surprised at the degree of “off the shelf” compatibility that Linux had. We expected to be very limited in the types of hardware we could use, i.e., controllers, graphics cards, etc. Because we've always been SCO users, we also needed to have compatibility with SCO binaries, which the iBCS module provides. Compatibility is the true acid test.

Marjorie: What advantages do you see in using Linux? Disadvantages?

Kent: I admit that my initial focus was on the cost advantages of Linux. The more I've worked with the product, however, the more I'm impressed by all the other advantages. Linux is truly compliant with the standards of the industry; the advantage of being so new is that there is no legacy “baggage” in the operating system. It was designed to POSIX standards from the outset. It is the fastest Intel-based UNIX I've ever seen. It is quite reliable. The support is incredible—despite the fact that the paradigm of support is very different and takes some getting used to. Most people wouldn't expect 24x7x365 support for a free software product, but with Linux, you have it. The Linux community is incredible. The biggest advantage I see to Linux is that it will be a true alternative to Windows NT on the Intel platform in the future. I don't see any other operating system currently available that can make that claim—not OS/2, and SCO is simply off track.

The disadvantage of Linux is in the polish. Some companies are packaging Linux and doing a good job. The challenge is to keep one of those companies from becoming dominant and setting us on an SCO-type path of price inflation. One of the larger players has already tried to put a $400 price tag on a packaged Linux—BOO! The free, downloadable Linux needs more polish. It also goes without saying that the software development community must develop software compatible with Linux and the standards Linux represents.

Marjorie: What do you find most attractive about Linux?

Kent: I guess I'm a rebel—but I like the feeling that I'll have an option other than Windows NT in five years. After that, it is price—I'm a software developer and reseller. A free operating system is just the ticket for my customers.

Frankly, I think operating systems should have been free a long time ago. Linux is blazing the trail in this area, and I hope it brings price pressure on the rest of the industry. I also very much like the fact that Linux is so rock-solid and reliable—a true enterprise-class operating system.

Marjorie: How do you think Linux compares with other operating systems?

Kent: As a UNIX compared to other UNIX operating systems on Intel platforms, Linux is less expensive, faster, more open and more compliant to standards than any UNIX I know of. It is also less “polished”, as I've said. Linux has a brighter future than any other UNIX I could name. Linux has a much broader user-support base than any other UNIX, and it also has more industry support, particularly on the Internet side. Although hard numbers are not easy to come by, I think there is little doubt that far more Linux has been deployed in the past two or three years than any other version of UNIX. Remember, my main perspective is that of a “greedy” businessman—I can't give you the bit-by-bit lowdown on technical differences.

As compared to NT, don't get me started. I have found NT to be unreliable with even relatively small (50MB and less) databases. Linux is totally reliable with these databases. Linux is fast—I could easily put 30 to 40 users on a Pentium-based Linux system with a database application. That same box would die an ugly death after running NT. We rarely reboot a Linux system; we are constantly rebooting NT systems. Certainly any time a configuration change is made, NT has to be rebooted. Almost any type of hardware can be dynamically linked to a Linux system on the fly—it is amazing how often we actually do this. Our Linux web server has been up for eight months. We rebooted our corporate NT server 12 times last week (I just looked).

I mentioned before that I'm a rebel—but in reality, every IS professional I've talked to tells this same story about NT versus UNIX or Linux servers, database servers and mission-critical applications. It is amazing how powerful Microsoft's marketing arm is.

I do have to mention the GUI interfaces on Linux; like the operating system and installation portions of Linux, they are not as polished as the MS Windows interfaces. I've seen some really nice X implementations for Linux, but it is still too hard for the average user to get there. This is a part of the polish that needs to happen with Linux.

Marjorie: What do you think needs to be added to Linux to make it more attractive to business users?

Kent: Again, we get back to the polish. Installation needs to be as easy (or easier) than NT, with more automatic sensing of installed components. Business users need to able to order their servers preconfigured with Linux. I predict that companies such as Dell and Gateway will be offering this within a year. Business users need a high level of comfort with support and service behind their operating system. Linux needs to be invisible as a server operating system—and this is certainly the case now. Marjorie: Did you or Informix initiate the idea of a Linux port? If it was you, how did you go about convincing Informix that they needed to port to Linux?

Kent: There had been pressure on Informix for a long time to port to Linux, and by no means do I take more than one voice's credit for getting Informix to do an actual port. Much of the pressure came from the International Informix Users Group and the Informix Users Group; it has been a major topic of conversation on the Informix newsgroup threads for a very long time. I do believe that a lot of the pressure on Informix was perceived by Informix executives as coming from the “hacker” community, which was incorrect—but let's face it, Linux has been perceived in that light for some time. However, that is changing. When I started putting pressure on Informix last year, I did turn up the heat a bit—I bent every ear I could, including Bob Finocchio's in December. I talked with them about the business case for Linux—I have the competitive edge when my operating system is free and my competitor is selling a $1200 copy of NT. When I'm trying to sell an Informix/Apropos system to a 200-store retailer, that's a lot of money. I also tried to convince them that the other major database players were not asleep and would eventually port to Linux, which has certainly turned out to be true—but Informix has beaten the competition by months with their Linux port.

I give Informix all the credit in the world for listening to their customers. Informix is a great business partner, period. I also applaud the IIUG for their patience in working with Informix to get this port done—this is their victory. We are showing support for Informix in the only way it really counts—we've ordered our first Informix SE licenses for Linux!

Marjorie: Tell us all about your Apropos product. How does it use Informix and Linux?

Kent: Apropos is an enterprise-wide software system for chain retailers. If you were a retailer with 150 stores, you would call Apropos for a total solution, from point-of-sale to your corporate office. Our offering is very unique in that the entire system is based on a database (Informix), and written in a 4GL language (Informix Dynamic 4GL). Our product line also includes complete Data Warehousing, for which we utilize the Informix Metacube product. You can see that our partnership with Informix is truly a foundation of our business. A new product we're offering is the Apropos Retail Intranet—retailers absolutely love this part of the product. Some of our customers are Esprit de Corp of San Francisco, bebe of San Francisco, Pro Golf Discount and Intrawest, which runs such resorts as Whistler/Blackcomb, Mammoth Mountain and Mount Tremblant in Quebec.

The in-store server for a retail store has traditionally been SCO UNIX, running an Informix SE database engine. We can now install a Linux server at a fraction of the cost. A typical store will have our POS application running on Informix and will also use the Netscape Communicator browser for the Apropos Intranet. With Linux, even a single-station store can have the total reliability of a Linux-based application with the Netscape graphical interface on the same station.

Marjorie: What type of business is most likely to need Apropos?

Kent: Chain retail, strictly chain retail. Many of our clients also have e-commerce sites or mail order, but usually in conjunction with their retail operations.

Marjorie: Do you support other operating systems with Apropos?

Kent: Yes. We support SCO UNIX, HP/UX, IBM AIX, Windows NT and MS Windows desktop operating systems. Windows NT will run Informix, and we currently use it as a file/print server and for a small data warehouse. I would point out that we have made a significant investment in Windows NT over the past four years and have two Microsoft-certified professionals and MCSE candidates on staff, including myself.

Marjorie: Have you considered making Apropos Open Source?

Kent: Our database is already open and always has been, and we freely distribute the documentation for our data model. There is not a lot of demand from our client base for our software to be open source.

Marjorie: Have all of your products been ported to Linux? If not, why not?

Kent: All of our products with the exception of the data warehouse have been ported to Linux. The reason we haven't ported the data warehouse is that Metacube requires the Informix Online Dynamic Server, which hasn't been ported yet (hint hint).

Marjorie: What advice would you give others who would like to convince companies to port their products to Linux?

Kent: Make a case for Linux in a way that business people can understand—dollars and cents. As the case for Linux builds in the systems community, it will be easier to gather information that shows the demand for Linux and the growing user base out there. I believe it is self-evident that the world does not want to be stuck with one operating system—and it is equally self-evident that Linux will be a player in the future. Many software companies and their executives will recognize this fact and respond to it by porting their products and developing new products that adhere to international open standards. Linux makes business sense. Sharp business people will see this.

Marjorie: What do you see in the future for Apropos/Linux/Informix?

Kent: At Apropos, we feel we are perfectly positioned for the future. Our software applications are totally Y2K-compliant; we are built on open systems standards from start to finish. We believe in our technology and our technology partners, particularly Informix and the Linux community. We are very close to our customers, uniquely so—and our customers are very successful companies. We will continue to build the best retail software in the industry on the best platforms. We'll continue our commitment to customer service. If you have good products and are committed to customer service, you are not going to go wrong. That's why Informix has come through a tough year very well, and it is why Apropos continues to be successful.

I see a very bright future for Linux. I think the train is just starting to pick up steam. As Microsoft continues to have problems because of their unfair business practices, people will start to notice something strange about the old emperor, at least in the area of enterprise-class operating systems. They'll want alternatives. System OEM's will want to offer alternatives to their customers. Software developers will continue to catch the Linux wave. I personally find it very exciting, and I'm having a lot of fun watching it unfold. The fact that I can save my customers money and make more money for my business at the same time is great.

Marjorie: Thank you for your time.

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