Information systems departments are being asked to make increasing amounts of data available to associates throughout the organization, while simultaneously keeping computing costs under control.
To solve this more-for-less dilemma, many retailers are investing in thin-client computer architecture to augment their internal data processing and reporting.
IS executives told SN that thin-client architecture costs can be as much as 50% less than those for thick-client systems. However, because of the limitations of thin-client systems, many retailers are using both architectures to meet all their computing needs.
Thin clients are PC workstations that provide access to centralized data, usually using browser technology rather than relying on a network to process and present the information. They enable associates at the store level to view reports and memos and to track sales and customer information, for example, but for the most part, they do not allow users to work with the data itself.
Thick clients are individual PC workstations that house multiple applications and can process work via the hard disk drive of that PC. The network structure distributes the computing power between the server and the individual PCs. Typically, thick-client architecture allows users to construct and process reports based on large amounts of data.
"The evolution of thin clients is based on the growth of the Internet and Internet browsers," said Bob Drury, vice president of management information systems for Schnuck Markets, St. Louis. "The amount of work happening on the thin-client PC is limited because the work is occurring on the server" and is transmitted through the browser.
"Retailers can see cost savings in this area because at store level, associates do not need access to every available application," said Scott McPheeters, network administrator for Pay Less Super Markets, Anderson, Ind.
Another factor that reduces the cost of thin clients is the price of the actual hardware. "Since you are working through a browser with thin clients, the resources and applications typically needed to process information via a PC are not needed," explained Schnuck's Drury.
Hannaford Bros., Scarborough, Maine, agreed that thin-client architecture is a cost-effective solution because a server fee is less costly than making software available to each in-store computer terminal.
"The fact that there is no software to distribute, as you do when outfitting thick clients, is a factor in the reduced cost of the technology," said Thomas Witwicki, manager of data resources for Hannaford. "When there is a high cost associated with specific software applications, a server fee is a less costly alternative. There is a potential savings to be gained."
"When there is a lot of information that needs to be shared between sites a thin client makes sense. The associate simply uses a browser to access the data needed at the other site," said Schnuck's Drury. "Thin clients minimize the movement of data and put power into the user's hand to access the information he needs to see."
Though Pay Less has replaced half of the in-store terminals in its eight stores with thin clients, McPheeters questions whether thin clients are a cost-effective strategy overall.
"The actual client itself and browser access is cheaper, but the horsepower behind the client needs to match the support to process information," he explained.
"I believe that the cost of running either thin or thick architecture is going to be similar when you add up all of the pieces," said Michael Wagner, manager for the consulting firm Deloitte & Touche, New York. "Sure, the browser is very cheap, but all of the technology and components needed to run the thin client are the costly pieces that are often forgotten."
The cost debate has not stopped the supermarket industry from investing in the technology to streamline its business operations.
Hannaford jumped into thin-client architecture a year ago, though the retailer has only begun to identify benefits within the last three months.
The retailer's 150 stores were fit with three in-store thin clients per unit, each with browser capability, said Witwicki. The thin clients enable the stores to access corporate information stored on file servers at headquarters.
"Store managers can access financial and store data simply by launching a Netscape browser to connect to Hannaford's home page," Witwicki said. "The home page displays various applications available through our intranet, and they are able to connect to our decision-support application.
"The browser enables associates to retrieve information for viewing and decision-making purposes. They do not have the option to update or add to information," he added.
Six-unit Bristol Farms, El Segundo, Calif., a member of Certified Grocers of California, Los Angeles, described thin clients as easier to manage than thick clients. Processing information via a browser is simpler than maintaining applications of numerous separate terminals, as is needed with thick clients.
"Systems are updated and maintained much more easily when using a browser instead of relying on updating an actual [thick] client, where all the applications reside at the individual's terminal," said James Villela, director of information technology for Bristol Farms. "This also leads to labor savings. Using a thin client means you do not have to troubleshoot multiple computer problems; instead, the problem resides in one area," he said.
Pay Less' McPheeters agreed. "We see time savings by providing item maintenance and price books to our stores via thin clients," he explained. "The browser lets us instantly update information stored on the network and gives those changes to our associates in real time, rather than having them wait for actual hard copies of printed lists. Our stores used to wait between three days and a week to receive those lists."
For every benefit of thin-client systems, however, there is a challenge to overcome as well. The major concern seems to be keeping the browser on-line.
"The central facility that is maintaining the browser needs to maintain the horsepower. If there is not enough power, all thin-client users will suffer," Schnuck's Drury explained.
"If you are using a thick client and one application shuts down, you simply run a different application to get the information you need from your PC," said McPheeters. "But if a thin client's browser goes down, users are out of luck, as all work and queries are halted as well."
Partly because of such support issues, IS executives continue to use both thin and thick computing structures.
"We are doing a balancing act with both thin and thick architecture," said Drury. "Thick clients are better for the number crunching and calculating that is done in the supermarket industry. Many PCs do these functions and if they were sharing a single application supported by a browser, the processing would greatly slow down."