by Sneha Jha

Trent Strengthens Security with an Open Source Solution

Jun 15, 2010

Store operations at the Rs 1000 crore Trent revolve around the cash tills. But security and scalability challenges were threatening to sabotage the functioning of these tills.  OpenSource helped the retail firm combat these challenges.


At Trent, the retail arm of the Tata Group, life centered around their cash tills. But it was also open to security challenges. Besides the cash till software wasn’t centralized and required to be physically managed. Read how an Open Source solution helped Trent secure its applications and earn an edge over their peers in terms of operational efficiency and agility.

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How Open Source’s benefits go beyond just costThe challenges that are inherent to an Open Source strategy

Retail is in the detail.” That’s a mantra that resonates across Trent House, the corporate office of Trent, the retail arm of the Tata Group. It’s a philosophy is driven by Noel Tata, MD, Trent, known for his eye for detail. It’s also a strategy that helps Trent stay on – what some experts call – its ‘conservative’ course. Although ‘conservative’ turned ‘smart’ when Trent maintained profitability – one of the few retailers (possibly the only Indian one) – during the growth frenzy that the sector faced a few years ago. That conservative tag, however, can’t be applied to Trent’s IT operations. Headquartered in Mumbai, Trent operates multiple formats including Westside (its lifestyle retailing stores);Star Bazaar (its value retailing stores and hypermarkets) and Landmark (its books and music retail chain).

“With the existing number of tills we were facing a challenge of increasing costs. And we knew that this problem would only be compounded as we expanded.”

Leaky Cash Tills At Trent, the IT team led by Vikram Idnani, the retailer’s head of IT, was trying to figure out how they could prepare the company for growth by infusing it with more operational agility and flexibility. Like all retailers, Trent’s life centered around their cash tills. When it snapped open with a characteristic ka-ching!, it made everyone glad. But it was also open to security challenges. For instance, the system allowed some staffers access to sales data because the POS and the backend interacted via flat files and these were available to some people in a store’s back office. “The fact that my day-to-day sales data was accessible to someone before he sends it out to the head office was the biggest sign of a security gap in the system. Also, we did not have visibility. If a store manager was removing some transactions, it would only come out in a post-facto analysis, when finance did not get the money they expected. Our objective was to have a system where the stores had no access to sale data after sales were closed,” says Idnani. Also, Trent’s business demanded quick deployments and better control but each time the IT team made a change to the cash till’s software, it needed to ensure that the update was replicated across all of Trents multiple format stores – quickly. And that could only be done with a centralized set up – something Trent didn’t have. “Earlier, we needed someone to go to a store physically and make sure he configures the cash till for every single store,” says Idnani. The rising cost of managing their cash tills was also beginning to pinch. “A cash till should be a highly efficient, robust, secure, and cost effective piece of equipment,” says Idnani. “With the existing number of tills we were facing a challenge of increasing costs. And we knew that this problem would only be compounded as we expanded. Mind you, this was a time when Trent’s revenues were growing a consistent clip of 55 percent CAGR. We were planning to add 10 new stores for both Westside and Star Bazaar over the next two years.” Typically, each Westside store has between seven and nine cash tills. By adding 10 stores a year, just Westside would have 90 more tills to manage. And Star Bazzar has about 30 tills a store, so 10 new stores meant 300 more tills. “The growth in the numbers could lead to a huge escalation of our costs,” says Idnani.

“With the existing number of tills we were facing a challenge of increasing costs. And we knew that this problem would only be compounded as we expanded.”

Open Source Decisions With plans for expansion already in the works, Idnani had to move fast, but he also needed a technology solution that offered a holistic solution. When Idnani  joined Trent in June of 2006, the enterprise depended on a platform called Retail Pro for its purchasing and tracking the movement of its goods. It also acted as their point of sale. But Trent was quickly outgrowing the software. “We were looking at SAP and a front-end solution as RetailPro would not be able to scale anymore. With this in mind, we decided to have a bespoke front-end. That was the threshold moment that drove us to look for a new solution,” says Idnani. But an Open Source solution in the Indian retail industry was unheard of, he says. So he decided to evaluate other solutions. He looked at an off-the-shelf product which operated on a Windows platform. “It was not a popular product but it was from a very stable company. It didn’t make the cut because it could not contain cost over a long period. The product addressed the need for centralization, but we knew that with Windows there would always be a security risk at the cash till. And with Windows, we would end up spending a lot of money buying licenses for each new release. On the other hand, Open Source would help keep our costs significantly lower. We realized that if we chose an Open Source solution it would give us a lot of agility and we were also keen to take advantage of flexibility and cost efficiency it offered,” says Idnani. Idnani next challenge was securing buy-in from his executive peers. He made a presentation that demonstrated how the Open Source solution would benefit Trent in building business agility, saving costs, and attaining a high level of security – many of the same reasons that convinced him. Management saw merit in the case and gave Idnani the go ahead. With that out of the way, Idnani was faced with another challenge: his team was ill-equipped to work on an Open Source platform. They had no prior exposure to it. In fact, Trent was going to be the first retailer in India to use an Open Source platform, Idnani says. He quickly put his entire infrastructure team through intensive training. Idnani then took another important decision: Trent would not embark on the project in a phased manner because they could not have some stores on one platform and the rest on another. But for that strategy to work, they had to seal every loophole in their plan. “So we did a pilot with two Westside stores in Mumbai for about six to eight weeks,” says Idnani.

Teething Troubles When Trent embarked on the Open Source initiative, it was also engaged in multiple projects at the same time. It was in the middle of an ERP initiative at the backend, an OS replacement at the front end and a POS replacement at the front end. “We were revamping our whole business with this one go-live. From that point of view it was a significant challenge. That’s the reason we went live late,” says Idnani. That wasn’t the only challenge the team faced. Vendor support was a major issue that hamstrung the implementation. “While there were a lot of promises from our provider, they could not deliver on them. They had very good resources but very limited ones. Hence pulling those resources for our work and getting timely help from them remained a big challenge throughout the course of the project. It did not affect us to the point that it hit our business but the closure of certain issues was definitely affected. So we had to spend a lot of extra time on  research to resolve these issues,” says Idnani, adding that despite the training, his people needed a fair amount of handholding after going live. Idnani says the learning curve lasted for a good year.

Benefits Galore When the project went live in June 2008, Trent became the first retailer in India to go the Open Source route says Idnani. But he adds that the strategy of using Open Source gave Trent an edge over their peers in terms of operational efficiency, security and agility. “Since we went live we have probably had about probably six to eight releases for our point of sales software across all stores. We have brought in several new functionalities to our point of sales system and increased the speed of deployment. So we have faster time-to-market. It helped us adopt new functionalities across the stores before our competition,” says Idnani.

Take for example when Trent’s marketing team needed to roll out a new customer loyalty program called the ‘Blue Tier’ program. The IT team made a quick change to the POS and the program was deployed across 42 stores – all in just two days. This is a far cry from the days when it took 20 days to roll out a new release across all Trent’s stores. Trent has also accrued benefits in the area of cost efficiency. Over a four-to-five year timeframe, Trent’s operating expenses are have been slashed by 40 percent, says Idnani. With the deployment of the Open Source project, Trent has also upped their security posture.