Installation at Alberta Co-operative Grocery, August 1st, 2007

I got wind that Alberta Co-op, at Portland, Oregon, was installing IS4C and so I decided to make my way there to pay them a visit. I told Joel I would help, but I had ulterior motives. For the first time, the Linux version had a scanner scale driver that seemed to function well in the lab. I wanted to see how well it worked in production. I also wanted to take pictures of the event, but above all, I am always interested in IS4C installations, and simply could not stay away. In the end, I was only able to observe for half an hour after the store offically opened on August 1st before I had to make a mad dash for the airport. I'll get to that later.
As it turned out, I arrived two days before the roll-out, on July 30th, to find Alberta Co-op pleasantly situated on a well travelled, but quiet street. Inside, an eerie calm prevailed.

Joel showed up and led me to the staging area for the installation. Joel was given part of the administrative office, set up in a modular trailer in the parking lot. I realized why there was an eerie calmness. Joel had already installed everything. There were going to be three lanes, and all three computers were all set to go, humming along between the milk crates. In a pinch, if they wanted to run IS4C then and there, Joel was ready.

In any project of this nature, there were, of course, still a thousand details to be taken care of. Much of the work involved in the installation would actually be networking, electrical wiring and carpentry. The register stands had to be moved and altered to accommodate the new equipment. An extra server had to be installed, and so on. There were still a number of last minute details in the software - and that would be IS4C - to be taken care off. I took out my computer, and was soon immersed in trying to fix the last, obvious bugs and putting in the final, customized features.

Joel, our fearless leader, settled with with his iPhone (oh yes, he had one), arranging for various things to happen while tapping away on his Mac laptop, ironing out last minute issues on 'Fannie' - the backend that he's created to work with IS4C. Matthaus came in. Matthaus was otherwise the wine buyer, but he's delved into the code, even though it was undocumented, and created a membership module, overnight, to work with IS4C. He was soon deep in work as well.

Soon we were joined by Kenny, who then disppeared into the store basement to deal with the electrical wiring and the networking.
I was impressed by the fact that we were dealing with last minute improvements and not with critical "show stopping" issues. Previous installations had involved working down to the wire to resolve critical flaws. This time, there were no such eleventh hour agonies. Everything appeared to have been planned out. The cashiers had been trained, the department heads had had a chance to work with the backend interface. The staff seemed prepared - nonchallant, even.

I was asked to make the system respond automatically to bottle deposits. In order to test the foodstamp status of bottled alcoholic beverages, I bought a big jug of cider. It was dangerous to leave a big jug of liquid unattended, as it turned out. It fell onto the floor, spraying the room with a geyser of sweet, foamy liquid which then splattered in all directions when it hit the wall. Soon the smell of alcohol permeated the air. I wondered to everyone whether I could use the phrase "cider soaked" to describe the installation, to give it more strength. So here it is: "cider soaked".

Alberta Co-op had two lanes, but a new lanes was to be added. The Register-stand for the new lane had already been constructed. Notice that you are looking at an old door. It is hard to see, and you can probably get a better look in some of the other pictures, but note that the monitor stands were made from galvanized water pipes. I was impressed by how community and volunteer resources were mobilized. The POS computers, including the servers, where built by Free Geek. The operating system, Debian, is free, and the software, IS4C, is of course, also free. It's the co-op principle in action.

After dinner Kenny went back into the basement and did not stop working until well after the store had closed. By then he had sorted out the electrical wiring and network cabling for lanes 1 and 3. Lane 2 cannot be reconfigured without wrecking havoc upon the store, and so we adjourned.

More of the same the next day. Towards evening, Joel took me into the bowels of Free Geek and we re-emerge with a pile of cables. The installation began in ernest after the store closed at 10:00 pm on July 31st. Lane 2 was taken apart.

Soon the carpenter came. I did my part vacuuming saw dust with a little dirt devil and trying to scrub out the black rectangles left on the tiles, but after carrying all the gear from the trailer to the store, with help from Jesse, a volunteer, I found myself reading the Harry Potter book.

Jeff showed up. I first met Jeff in Madison, Wisconsin, when he represented Peoples Food Co-op at an IS4C meeting. The PFC contingent suffered an auto accident on the way. Luckily no one was hurt, but Jeff was the only one who made it to Madison. Jeff was a system administrator by trade, and he had come to set up a back up server to mirror the main server. It didn't take him long, and the mirror server was soon plopped onto the server rack. Note the ethernet jack high up.

Soon after Jeff left, it was time to lower the scanner-scales into place. Holes were drilled, metallic pipes fitted, cables threaded. I looked outside, the sun had come up. It was morning, and the lanes were all plugged in.

Joel called for a "fresh air break". We stumbled outside. It felt good. From left to right - Matthaus, Kenny and Joel.

Kenny worked in computer security, and soon he was making doubly sure that the POS network was internal and impenetrable from outside. Database security was also reset accordingly. Everyone had been going at it for a long time, and now finally we were running out of things to do.

The store was scheduled to open at noon that day, but we could have opened earlier. Everything was more or less ready by 10:30 am. Joel put the caps on the monitor stands, physically as well as figuratively, it would seem. There's something we learned from previous installations - before going live, test data should be deleted from the lanes and the server, or the financial manager will be alarmed by the volume of sales in the first minutes. Just before noon, test data was deleted, and the door opened.

The first customers came in, overjoyed, apparently, by their proximity to the new Point of Sales system. I tried to take a picture of the dramatic presentation of the celebratory champagne, but unfortunately I failed, as I realized later, to get Rachel into the picture.

My flight was at 2 pm and I had to leave for the airport soon after the store opened. Before I left, however, I got to meet Sojo, the board member at Alberta Co-op with whom I had a conversation about IS4C a year ago. She was herself a software developer. At the time of her call I voiced the usual list of misgivings about IS4C. I gave her my "gloom and doom" speech. She understood, but Sojo was more energized by the possibilities of the system than she was concerned about the shortcomings. In the end, Alberta Co-op and Joel managed to mobilize and draw upon the resource of their community and make it all happen.

I left, feeling energized myself, despite not having slept for thirty some hours. I felt reaffirmed in my own views that open source is compatible with the co-operative philosophy, and felt rather pleased to be involved in a co-operative movement in which something like that could happen. There's something made tangle by people pulling together. And I certainly did not go home empty-handed: There was "Fannie", the back end which can now be bundled with IS4C. Above all, I had learned a great deal, and it really was a privilege to be able to work with Joel, Kenny, Matthaus, and all the other people I met there. I had a blast.

I'll leave the last word to the end user, however. In the end, for all the fun we are having, the customers and membership of Alberta Co-op will let us know if IS4C has been a success in their case. We'll wait for that final verdict with anticipation.