Monday, March 21, 2016

Payments? ATMs? Are we seeing the full story?

Making time to check the flowers may not be a priority for business and yet, as challenging as it was to arrange, financial institutions are facing bigger challenges as they look to better serve a rapidly changing constituency.   

My attendance at the recent ATMIA US Conference in New Orleans wasn’t just a time for networking and for sampling a little of what New Orleans offers but, more importantly, it was a time to hear firsthand what was happening in the world of ATMs, ATM networks and the payments solutions supporting them. For more years than I care to recount, I have been in and around payments solutions and so it would be very easy for me to become a little jaded and yet, with each conference, I run into a presentation that truly proves enlightening. Such was the case when I walked into the presentation A Blueprint for Next-Generation ATM Networks by Peter Kulik, Director, Digital ATM, Citibank.

The ATM network at Citi represents the face of Citi as seen by its customers everywhere on the planet and for much of the planet’s population the Citi brand is projected solely by the branding on show at each of its ATMs. Before diving into the future blueprints for ATM networks, Kulik stated that, for the foreseeable future, Citi would continue to rely on proprietary software for the interface to ATMs. When it comes to talking about visions, Kulik was even more forceful as he admitted visions are as much aspirational as they are goals as “there are technology challenges for which we don’t have answers.”

Over the course of the past forty years, we have seen many changes taking place in the way we interact with ATMs. Not every intention or opportunity panned out as expected but at the very least, financial institutions were prepared to try different things to keep ATMs a viable option when it comes to supporting consumers. When I watched as the first Nixdorf Computers’ ATM arrived in Sydney being uncrated in a warehouse, we were all bemused to see that the option to keep the fascia heated had been included even though it was a feature only required in northern latitudes where winters temperature would have otherwise froze operations. Maybe the challenges of working in the heat of an Australian summer had confused those assembling this ATM back in Paderborn.

For Citi however, challenges were coming fast and often – pulling together a vision therefore included both near term as well as longer term objectives. A Proof of Concept (PoC) has been underway – indeed, from the nature of what was presented there may have been more than one PoC under way with, at a minimum, one focused on the thin client and another on message routing and translation – and questions continued to be raised. The current situation had seen Citi supporting some 64 ATM functions but clearly, not every location around the planet needed them all so simply coming up with a scheme whereby each location had just the functions they needed was the first item to be addressed as this directly impacted the code within the payments solution they ran. However, this was going to be easy when compared to many of the other tasks slated for inclusion in the Citi vision.

However, one interesting aspect of tuning the functions on hand was that in select markets Citi was already offering a number of PIN-less transactions, including PIN-less Credit Card Payments. Obviously, what hacker would want to insert real cash to pay down a consumer’s credit card! So no, PINs weren’t a requirement. Then again, banking laws differ across markets too, such that in other select markets, Citi was supporting personal loans, prepaid mobile phone “top-up” and even charitable donations, all directly from the ATM. In Latin America there was even the option to perform currency conversions directly on the ATM as consumers could opt for accounts in currencies other than their own. All of which was fuel for the Citi vision as their current network architecture didn’t support a global customer experience.

The transformation of the ATM network was being driven, according to Kulik, “as part of a broader digital transformation being pursued by the bank and yes, this includes global customer experience whereby the user can interface with the digital ‘richest’ experience” that Citi can provide. As for the design centers anchoring the blueprint, there were a number of them and it was a key consideration in order for Citi to move beyond simply having a blueprint to where they would have a modern ATM network.

Among these design centers were the obvious – maintain a leading user interface and transaction- while laying the foundation to better support future enhancements. Also, it was imperative that they integrate the design with Citi’s banking technology infrastructure for mobile, online, internet, branches, etc. everywhere in the world. In other words, Citi wanted a single global code base to efficiently accommodate Citi’s diverse country and regulatory requirements and key to this was a future code base architected to support “micro services, enabled and aligned with continuous delivery and deployment.” These micro services would in turn, support backward compatibility, multi-vendor ATM support, be ATM OS agnostic (to allow choice of software stack), and a preference by Citi to rely on thin-clients wherever feasible.

Finally, and news that would be welcomed by any NonStop user, “Citi’s future technology will have a service based architecture that is built on a decoupled, scalable and responsive application that runs in a cloud!” Think of deploying an Enterprise Service Bus (ESB) – from any of IBM, Tibco, Oracle, etc. – into which plug the many micro services Citi envisions having. With clarity, surprising for bankers, Citi sees its future as having micro services as “reusable componentized services that are bound to specific business capabilities (and that) allows for release by module thereby reducing dependencies, shortening test cycles and enabling faster deployment.” That’s it – the blueprint for Next Gen ATMs.

Again, coming from NonStop I was both shocked and surprised. Dare I add, a little disappointed – is this the full story? So much of what was covered appeared to me to be routine considerations for the development of any modern solution on NonStop, but then again, we are talking about the most conservative marketplace of all. The business of dealing with our money, where change happens at a glacial pace! And yet, Citi folks while talking about clouds, service architectures, talked very little about off-the-shelf solutions even as they considered commercial, off-the-shelf hardware for both ATMs and the systems that they interface to as being important considerations when it comes to improving the overall TCO of their ATM network.

Furthermore, this blueprint only covered the ATMs that Citi owned and there was a gap in their overall vision when it comes to the many more ATMs that Citi simply doesn’t own and yet needs to support. More startling, with the necessity to migrate from Windows XP to something like Windows 7 or 10, when it comes to security, Citi is happy with what they see included as part of either version of Windows. And again, that’s it – leave it to MS (or perhaps, Android or even Linux both of which are being considered as future ATM OS options)!  No, the blueprint had very little to say about security and that kind of left me cold.

All of which is to say, with what NonStop provides today together with the ecosystem of partners focused on middleware, tools and monitoring, there’s ample evidence of NonStop support of ATMs will continue to grow. Lesser priced NonStop X systems are developing traction among tier 2 and 3 banks and retailers – just check with OmniPayments CEO, Yash, who took delivery of his third NonStop X system recently and has plans now for four more – and the potential for even greater choice among vendor solutions only adds to the longer term viability of NonStop in payments.

My recent travels have taken me through many states and driving conditions have been challenging at times. At the same time I have seen the desert bloom in Death Valley, something not witnessed for more than a decade. The challenges facing the big banks, on the other hand, are a lot bigger than simply stopping to check the flowers. To see a bank the size of Citi reverting to a do-it-yourself approach startles even as it frightens and begs the even bigger question – will they ever get to roll out anything new? Of course, kudos need to go to Citi and to Kulik for giving the attendees such a presentation.

Perhaps the biggest challenge of all that Citi will face comes down to just this final point, and one I know many within the NonStop community have seen before and oftentimes cringed when it’s first encountered: Will the acknowledged differences between what is aspirational and what is real destine blueprints such as Citis to become just another footnote in the history of technology introductions within banks?

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Pulling at the RUG; NonStop resilience firmly on display around the globe!

Spending time at RUG meetings and I have been a fan for more years than I care to count, is what I enjoy doing more than practically anything else. Shouldn’t you be participating? Often times, this is where news on NonStop breaks first!

Shortly we return to the road; destination – the DUST event in Scottsdale. This time I will be presenting on behalf of a client, OmniPayments, and I am really looking forward to the opportunity to meet-and-greet fellow members of the NonStop community. Originally I had planned on driving up to Chicago and across to Columbus to attend MRTUG and OTUG events but supporting my clients always comes first, so perhaps, next time.

Ever since I became involved with the NonStop Regional User Groups (RUGs), back in 2001 and on behalf of the ITUG Board, I have really enjoyed the camaraderie that emanates from RUG events no matter where they are held. I have travelled on a ferry boat between Stockholm and Helsinki for VNUG, the gathering of Viking NonStop Users and I have spent a very enjoyable week on Australia’s Gold Coast with OzTUG! South Africa? Terrific group of very enthusiastic users and I will always remember attending their inaugural meeting at a golf course that kicked off the current SATUG organization.

There have been times however, where I wasn’t all that sure the community would survive and several times I arrived at a venue only to find two or three users present – on one occasion, and I seem to recall it was in London, only one user participated but they were very well entertained, I must admit. At its peak, back in the mid-2000s, there were approximately 35 active RUGs with plans in place to add a handful more groups. In the decades I have been involved with one user community or another, it’s been at the grass roots level where I truly see what’s important for users of a vendors products and services.

User groups are all about community and being among fellow advocates of a technology you yourself are most likely to be very fond of – whether it’s an inherited emotion following decisions taken years, even decades, earlier by others or as a direct result of actions you initiated, seeing your positive opinion reflected in the eyes of others is a sensation like no other in the world of technology. And as Martin Fink, EVP & HPE CTO, so tellingly revealed, across the whole product line of HPE there is no other group that knows the value proposition of its product more than the NonStop community does.

There’s resilience within the NonStop community that is very hard to define and oftentimes, justify. It’s steeped in legends even as it’s alive with favorite anecdotes – the evening trip down a river adjacent to the Emerald Resort outside Johannesburg, South Africa, remains my all-time favorite end-of-day activity and being able to move among HPE executives, product managers and a rich variety of consultants and end users, well it was a magical time. Can someone pass me another Castle beer?

Missing out on MRTUG and OTUG means I will not get to hear the presentation by HPE’s Keith Moore. Keith is on the leading edge when it comes to ensuring the latest technology makes it onto NonStop systems and has been a key contributor in helping other vendors bring frameworks and even languages to NonStop.

His presentation and demo featuring The Internet of Things (IoT) “is the hot topic for next generation of the Internet. NonStop servers are great enablers for collection, analysis, and distribution of this new type of information,” according to the brief description on the agenda for the OTUG event, but I believe Keith will be providing a similar presentation to attendees at MRTUG as well. “Almost all of the demo is using InfraSoft’s new bomBora product and I make a point of saying this,” Keith said.  “There are two new tools / features I will highlight: firstly, Node.js (bomBora), which I call out, and then secondly, Redis which is the pub/sub database.”

Again, the whole point of conducting events like this on a regional basis is to allow attendees to see first-hand what product roadmaps are telling the community and what solutions architects working with applications are telling just about everyone with whom they come into contact. If you really want to know what’s hot across the NonStop community you can expect to hear it first at a RUG event. Oftentimes, it’s a presentation given by a vendor that proves to be the turning point for fledgling products just coming to market and to see the responses from the audience in person, well, there really isn’t any substitute.

Sometimes the product or feature being introduced is a little ahead of any identifiable market need but that too is an outcome of the businesses NonStop serves as they are at the very heart of many of the major financial transaction processing solutions. It’s not every day you expect to see change but even so, it happens! It’s gradual and it’s measured – the element of risk is never far from the scene and for these businesses it’s just not an option to mess things up royally. No, it’s over coffee and the occasional adult beverage that business learns a lot about what’s happening right now as well as what to expect to see very soon.

I have a lot of enthusiasm for Node.js coming to NonStop. Attendees at both MRTUG and OTUG should be sure to catch Keith’s presentation as within the slides there will be further updates on the progress of Node.js on NonStop. I have written about this development many times over the years and gradually, the pieces are coming together and the availability of a viable product is at hand. But more importantly, it’s as if Node.js was designed with NonStop in mind, unlike Java. 

If you missed my early posts, the most important post was that of barely a year ago on November 13, 2014, Modernization – and NonStop is a key part of the landscape! Even as long ago as 2014, “Node.js has been gaining popularity as underlying technology for enterprise applications,” note Neil Coleman and Dave Finnie of InfraSoft Pty Ltd – the company behind the very deep port of the Node.js platform. “Large organizations including Wal-Mart, eBay, PayPal, MasterCard, and LinkedIn have all rolled out Node.js applications.”

More importantly in hindsight, and something that really first attracted me to the work done on the port, “
The Node.js model of event-driven, non-blocking I/O that is particularly suited to I/O bound applications - it may have almost been dictated by the fundamental concepts of writing a high-performance OLTP application running on the NSK operating system.” While current implementations of Node.js, obviously, do not possess the level of fault tolerance and scalability that software running on the HP NonStop Server can offer it’s all about to change with InfraSoft’s bomBora.

In the lead up to these RUG events, I asked Keith Moore about his demo and of the potential scope of the opportunity from having support for JavaScript on NonStop. “To-date, no customer is jumping on the product,” said Keith. “But literally every day I hear someone ask me (specifically) about JavaScript on NonStop. I think that 2017 is the year where it becomes more of a requirement. This is because we are just now hearing movement toward JSON and RESTful services on NonStop. Those discussions eventually lead to websockets and web apps, which eventually lead to JavaScript.” Based on what I am hearing, expect an article in an upcoming Connect magazine with more details on IoT enablement using Nonstop.”

This reference to JavaScript on NonStop is just one example of what’s new on NonStop that every attendee at these upcoming RUG meetings will be hearing about – but there’s a lot more than just JavaScript. Clearly, there will be considerable interest in hearing more about the availability of Yuma and the opportunity to better, and indeed more simply, develop solutions for hybrid environment comprising (most likely) NonStop and Linux. And perhaps, if the right questions are asked we will hear even more about NonStop running in a virtual environment following the demonstrations given at the recent Mobile World Congress 2016 in Barcelona, Spain.

Hybrids, Virtual Machines, JavaScript – just email this post to your CIO and line of business managers and see what response you get. Where did you hear all about this – well, at the recent RUG event and well, there’s even more coming. Can’t wait for the next NonStop Technical Boot Camp – perhaps management should plan on checking it out for themselves!

Conversations similar to the above are more than likely going to happen as more information on the future of NonStop is revealed. Of course, this isn’t to downplay the importance of this summer’s upcoming HPE Discover event. In case you didn’t recognize the photo atop the post – it’s the lobby of The Venetian hotel in Las Vegas where in just three months’ time, from June 7 – 9, HPE’s big-tent event will be held.

I have always been a big supporter of RUGs and will always find space and time to write about them. Driving across the country to participate in as many as I can is not a chore but a calling of sorts – it’s what I like to do. So, if you see me by the coffee machine then stop me, introduce yourself, and let me know what brought you to the RUG. I am more than happy to spend as much time with you as I can as, after all, it’s our community and let’s not ever lose sight of that! 

Monday, March 7, 2016

Covering all points on the compass, NonStop is hard to miss!

Nothing but clear skies ahead even as the highway beckons! At the ATMIA US Conference the panel sessions proved to be an interesting backdrop to challenges still facing financial institutions and yet, financial transactions still pass through NonStop … 

The ATMIA US Conference in New Orleans was the must-to-go place for everyone involved with ATMs. Whether it’s the devices themselves, the parties involved with moving the cash around or those involved in providing payments solutions, this rapidly growing event had it all.

Of course, the conference itself featured an exhibition hall with 85 plus exhibitors and there certainly was a lot to take in. It was also good to see companies with strong ties to NonStop exhibiting and this included companies such as FSS and FIS as well as Visa and Pulse / Discover.

However, for me, the real excitement came with the numerous panel sessions where ATMIA did a very good job of ensuring a representation from all interested parties were included and that often extended beyond simply users and vendors to include analysts, the press and even consultants close to ATMIA itself.

The result was not just a balanced discussion but ensured more than one aspect of the topic was covered. After all, everyone is entitled to their opinions and when it comes to cash, there were as many opinions as there were attendees.

There’s a growing sense that the bad days of winter are behind us and that, as the temperature begins to climb, we will be spending more time outdoors and for me, this also means more time on the road. Rest areas are clear of snow and while it’s a cliché, there’s nothing like driving under clear blue skies! As I noted in the last post, with February drawing to a close, we have driven across nearly twenty states as we have taken in Las Vegas and then Dallas and New Orleans.

This week will be our last in Boulder as this time next week, we hit the highway once again as we head to Scottsdale, Arizona, to attend DUST – the Regional User Group that accommodates NonStop users from Tucson and Phoenix and all points in between. It also is a hidden gem, when it comes to fine dining in America.

Time spent on the road means interacting with NonStop on a regular basis. When you stop to pump gas anywhere, use your Visa debit to pay for fast food or coffee, your MasterCard to check into your hotel, your AT&T smartphone to text a message, there’s every chance whatever I am transacting is passing through at least one NonStop system, oftentimes even more than just one system.

To attempt to explain all of that to even the most frequent attendee at events like the ATMIA still draws a blank with many of them and yet, it’s still important that as a NonStop community, we continue to emphasize just how widely used are today’s NonStop systems. But in reality it’s hard to ignore just how strong an influence NonStop commands today in the world of transactions.

A central theme at the ATMIA event had to do with the commercial servers in each ATM – Windows XP no longer will cut it and all networks need to make moves to upgrade with either Windows 7 or Windows 10 being the preferred replacement OS. There are some though considering Android and even Linux, but for the most part, the move will be to a more modern version of Windows.

What makes the discussion lively is the fact that while the bigger banks have moved off of Windows XP and yes, OS/2 and even Windows NT/2000, many of the smaller to medium size deployments are only slowly migrating even though Microsoft support for Windows XP ceased in April 2014, from what I heard.

But the point remains, 21st century ATMs are all commercial server based that are sourced from multiple vendors. The onus now is on the big ATM suppliers to continue to add to their security offerings even as the migration off Windows XP is being dovetailed with the need to support the EMV mandate. Security was clearly a big topic at the ATMIA event but the surprising thing for me to hear was that even though it’s a mandate, not everyone is rushing to embrace EMV!

Quite the contrary, many POS devices haven’t been swapped for new generation terminals supporting chip and pin but rather, where they have been introduced (and mostly by the big box stores like Home Depot and Target), they are chip and mag stripe. ATMs of the major banks seem better setup to handle chip and pin, certainly, but as for the rest, they are pretty much in the same boat as these less protected POSs. Yes, for the most part, we have all received chip-enabled cards but it’s pretty much universally accepted that in America we will be on chip and signature for quite a long time.

Not even equipped with NFC or QR capabilities, these devices aren’t doing anyone a favor but it’s part of the American way – we all move at the same rate as the last business to embrace and if you want to use your smartphone, it’s still a hit and miss proposition. For many attendees at the ATMIA event, even as our eyes rolled to the back of our heads, we all agreed that fortunately, we still had cash and surely, having cash ensured us the highest possible level of security. As Charlie Brown would say, after Lucie pulled the football, Ahhhhhhh!

But ATMs using commercial servers that are essentially PCs takes us back to language surrounding NonStop of late. In posts and commentaries provided elsewhere there’s been extensive coverage of the Mobile World Congress 2016 in Barcelona, Spain. While it has now wrapped up, if you visit the HPE web site and check out the page Showcase, you will see sitting atop the list, of all that is being showcased by HPE, the heading Transform to a Hybrid Infrastructure

Cool, but follow the link and you will find sitting atop that list the heading Virtual NonStop Infrastructure.  In case you missed it, what attendees were being encouraged to do was to "Visit this demo to learn about the future of highly available and massively scalable infrastructure for your core network. This is a live demonstration featuring a potential HPE virtual NonStop environment with x86 COTS hardware."

And here’s where I have seen for the very first time NonStop systems being described as COTS,  Commercial-Off-The-Shelf, hardware and I am wondering whether the new "NonStop as Software" now free from hardware and becoming clearly free from infrastructure will find a home on just about anyone’s COTS hardware.

Probably not, and as best I can tell, this is not on the NonStop roadmap so don’t go making calls to IBM for instance any time soon. NonStop remains firmly a HPE Mission Critical Systems solution. There is still a lot more to NonStop than just a sliver of OS capable of running on the Intel x86 architecture as, remember, it’s the whole stack!

Time spent on the road is always educational and the variety of transactions you initiate are almost endless but every time you perform a transaction, there is every chance your transaction will pass through at least on NonStop system. And no system continues to provide the value proposition that NonStop offers.

Perhaps comparing an ATM with a NonStop system is a stretch but then again, perhaps not – as branch offices begin to fade from the scene and are replaced with far more complex systems (check out Quantum Systems, MonRo, complete with its robotic arm for a glimpse at one perspective of what that future may look like), as NonStop gets even smaller future comparisons may not be quite as off-the-wall as we would like to think.

Trust I will see you all at DUST and travel safe!

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