Taking the plunge

Carphone Warehouse is among the UK’s fastest growing businesses. With this expansion comes the requirement for a robust IT...

Carphone Warehouse is among the UK’s fastest growing businesses. With this expansion comes the requirement for a robust IT system. Consequently, the company has turned to the Windows Custom Application Terminal which remains, as yet, largely untested

In depth

Steve Phelan, IT Systems team manager for the Carphone Warehouse Group plc, recently described the company's experiences in deploying the WinCAT. "Before deploying WinCAT, we used a mixture of custom-built POS PCs with Windows 95, a range of MS DOS-based Digital Equipment Corp POS tills and Digital VT420 dumb terminals. With the exception of the Windows 95 PCs, all other units are being replaced by the Wyse WinCAT units."

Phelan's team looked at smaller rival systems but had previously been "bitten by the lack of resources and the ability to deliver". They choose Wyse due to their market leadership and "flexibility and willingness to achieve the right solution".

"Our existing PC solution was considered costly and had hard disk drive reliability problems," says Phelan citing the company's main reason for the decision to move to a thinner solution. For Phelan, the implementation of the project was the most challenging aspect. "The initial configuration and 'lockdown' took a few weeks in order to identify the software required and configure it. The actual roll-out of the 800 plus units so far has been problem-free and quick."

The WinCAT was developed in conjunction with a well-known, but reluctant for publicity, international high street supermarket chain. Their requirement was for a rugged client terminal flexible enough to be used in customer-facing, warehouse and office locations without a costly support overhead. Another consideration was that if the centralised application server was taken out of service, the unit should still provide some level of functionality independent of the downed server.

The supermarket chain approached Wyse and, due to the size of the potential order, Wyse created a new class of thin client that offered both centralised computing and local application capabilities. The WinCAT is still a young product and of the handful of reviews it has received, the biggest criticism has been its lack of management capabilities.

Phelan is also critical of the management tools and says that "...units are updated 'manually' over the network when required because the management software is poor - it's almost non-existent at present. The older CE-based Wyse units have the type of tools we require and we are waiting for Wyse to improve this." Phelan, however, dismisses rumours of problems with the WinCAT by claiming that, "...although units which have been dead on arrival have been higher than we expected, this is often down to the internal Flash card coming loose in transit. Some units also 'lose' their Flash memory contents. However, once the units were deployed correctly, we have had almost zero hardware failures. We are very happy with this."

The Flash memory contains a modified version of Windows NT, which has been tweaked to allow it to work in a smaller memory footprint and without the need for a hard disk. This concept allows applications to be created that would normally have been beyond the scope of a thin solution. Although other vendors had offered a bastardised version of NT on a thin client, the WinCAT is the first to have a Microsoft certified and, more importantly, supported version of NT supplied with tools to allow the migration of desktop applications to WinCAT compatible versions.

With the bulk of the new system up and running, how does Phelan feel about the stability of the new WinCAT application? "We have found that our applications running on the embedded NT platform have been rock solid. We use Internet Explorer 5 plus various plug-ins such as ShockWave, Flash, JavaScript, JVM and others. We also use our in-house written code for a smartcard reader/writer and Telnet applications. All of these applications have worked very reliably."

Carphone Warehouse is the first major WinCAT site in the UK, but it is unlikely to be the last. Phelan is waiting to see if Wyse addresses issues over poor management features in the next release of support tools for WinCAT, but is confident of the long-term success of their switch to a thinner IT solution.

What is clear is that for thin computing to become an attractive solution for the masses, more customers need to be seen to take the plunge. On the other hand, for customers who have already made a serious financial commitment to traditional desktop PCs, the reasons need to be more compelling before thin computing becomes common place.

Will Garside

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