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Android lands on Microsoft's money-machine island fortress

NCR hurls Google's Linux at Windows XP walls

By Gavin Clarke, 15 Apr 2015

Banks have a new option for finally unhitching from Windows XP on tens of thousands of ATMs – Google’s Android.

NCR, the country’s largest supplier of cash machines, was today due to unveil a Linux-powered cash-machine running Google’s smartphone operating system. Called Kalpana*, NCR has developed a secure, customised version of Android KitKat 4.4.4 with chip giant Intel.

Gone are phone staples such as notifications, keyboard and camera; in come improved security with a secure boot-loader used to validate the kernel and operating system and prevent hackers booting code not signed by NCR. NCR is also introducing a thin architecture for building ATM apps that potentially makes cash machines easier and cheaper to maintain.

The result is a skinnny Kalpana client of 256MB, versus gigabytes needed for ATM's stuffed with Windows XP and – increasingly – Windows 7. Kalpana apps are Webbified; built using HTML rather than using Microsoft-friendly tools and language. They are served to a WebKit-based UI from a back-end in a bank’s data centre, constructed using the Spring Framework and RESTful APIs.

This is NCR's first Linux and Android-powered ATM. The industry swung to Windows in the 1990s, ditching IBM's OS/2 for an operating system on the rise which offered rich features and greater opportunity for banks to build their own, unique banking apps for customers at the ATM end-point. Two decades later, however, banks are lumbered with a costly legacy. Windows XP runs tens of thousands of ATMs in the UK that have not been receiving security updates from Microsoft since April 2014.

Last year, NCR told The Reg that just a third of the UK’s 60,000 ATMS would be upgraded from Windows XP. This week, NCR said one third are now on Windows 7 – with the rest either still migrating or simply not moving. Even a basic ATM costs tens of thousands of pounds and banks are unhappy at needing to spend on upgrades simply for the sake of the operating system.

They must also navigate the growing uncertainty of Microsoft’s Windows roadmap too – the post Windows-XP future of Windows has passed in quick succession, from Windows Vista to Windows 8, 8.1 and now Windows X.

NCR reckons it went back to the drawing board, getting off the upgrades and support treadmill, concluding that a thin client using Android was the answer. NCR claimed that an “average” cash-only dispenser costs $20,000 a year to maintain but Kalpana would cost between $12,000 and $15,000. Other cost savings will be passed on to the banks in terms of not having to pay a Microsoft licensing fee for Windows on each cash machine they operate.

NCR global marketing director for enterprise software products in NCR’s financial services division, Robert Johnson, told The Reg: “Kalpana gives people more flexibility and choice on how they will navigate the next few years.”

“Even if Windows 7 wasn’t happening we’d have done this, but Windows 7 has ramped up the volume of people more open to this,” Johnson said. “But what it’s prompting in the industry is a lot of discussion of why are we still using Windows. We have been asking that as well, to the point where we sat down with a clean sheet of paper and asked with all that we know, would be build something radically different – and the answer is ‘Yes’.”

The challenge for NCR now, however, is convincing banks married to Windows and who have begun migrating to newer Windows incarnations to embrace Android. Johnson also told The Reg that NCR will continue to make Windows-based cash machines for a long time.

Meaanwhile, the company is talking to industry bodies to have cash-machine standards evolve to accommodate its Android and web-based architecture. Kalpana works with relational data, supporting Microsoft’s SQL Server and Oracle, and non-relational by working with MongoDB. Non-relational data will be captured on the machine’s performance.

The system runs on the Apache Web Server, although NCR said it is app-server agnostic and would work on a bank’s platform of choice.

NCR picked Android. it said, because this offered the clearest roadmap in Linux with support from Google – it evaluated Red Hat, CentOS and building its own, too. ®

Bootnote

* Readers with long memories should be aware that NCR's new OS has nothing to do with Ethernet switch maker Kalpana, which was based in Sunnyvale, California until it was acquired by Cisco Systems in 1994.

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