Behind the scenes

 
March 11, 2012 | by Richard Buckle

Like many of my readers, I like automobiles. More passionate than most, I suspect, a car for me has ceased to have anything to do with moving between point A and point B — for me, it’s all about the journey. It’s about the performance. And most of all, it’s about the unique “fun factor” that generates a very special kind of emotional “pop” whenever I strap myself in behind the wheel.


Last week I stopped by the auto shop where they care for my car. A boutique of sorts, catering to those who drive Corvettes and who like to take them on weekend jaunts around racetracks that are liberally sprinkled across the western states of America. This time, my Corvette had much of its skin peeled back as the mechanics looked for just the right place to attach a tow hook ­— that small protrusion that allows safety vehicles to pull the Corvette back onto the track should I mess up and finish in the dirt.

Peering beneath the open hood and looking at an otherwise beautiful automobile stripped bare of its skin, as it was, its inner workings clearly visible, was a stark reminder of all that goes on behind the scenes. Commodity brake components and suspensions are among the more obvious examples and with electronics playing such a big role in how cars perform, manufacturers are increasingly turning to others for commodity components. All in the name of helping keep costs down.

It wasn’t all that long ago that I had the opportunity to tour a final test area within HP where they had assembled the largest NonStop BladeSystem ever. It was destined for HP’s own data center — at the time running a custom variation of NonStop with the NonStop SQL/MX databases that HP had tried to market as Neoview.

In a post to the Real Time View blog that followed the visit, “Investing in NonStop continues ... ”, I wrote of the impressive scale of the system: Four rows of cabinets housed the 512 processors while some 5000-plus 600Gb disk drives were to provide 1.5 plus petabytes of usable data storage. In terms of cores — I think these were all dual core Itanium chips so the system had to have had 1024 processors, but I don’t recall; it was 2010 and that was a long time ago.

What I didn’t cover in that blog post was how simple this NonStop system looked — with the panels removed and the skeletal chassis fully exposed, it was really easy to spot all of the commodity components leveraged by the NonStop team — if you didn’t know what HP system it was (and no, there were no NonStop labels visible anywhere), you might have thought it was just another large rack of Windows or Linux servers.

For me, as a programmer living in Australia, the history of ATMs is tightly connected to the history of Tandems, now the HP NonStop BladeSystem platform. Highly specialized and shrouded by the cloth of fault tolerance, running a mix of propriety middleware and solutions software ensuring no single points of failure, Tandems kept many of the ATM networks we know so well up and running.

But those days of proprietary builds are long gone — and as I look beneath the metal, all I see is a collection of Blades, populated by Intel chips, continuing to be as fault tolerant, highly available, scalable and secure as they ever were in the past.

Now transition to the ATMs we have today and pull away the metal. Cars and computer systems have benefited from commoditization and the modern ATM is no exception! No matter the vendor, all ATMs today are just the manifestation of an interface designed to ease our interactions with the financial world.

Look closely and they, too, are commodity. Proprietary PS/2s running the OS/2 operating system are long gone, replaced by what can only be described as commodity WinTel technology that is familiar to us all. But for how much longer? Aside from the physical security “hardening” that’s noticeably visible, is there still more to be done that will further reduce their costs?

Yesterday, the USA Today Money section included the story, New Square Device Replaces Cash Register. The story started with “First, it tackled the credit card transaction process. Now, Square wants to replace the antiquated cash register.” I have seen this first hand as the auto shop that maintains my Corvette has no cash register — the proprietor relies on his smart phone and Square.

However, the story then goes on to quote Megan Quinn, director of products at Square, as she said, "I truly believe POS, as you know it today, is dead … this will bring Square to an entirely new, small-market audience (bricks-and-mortar stores)."

The numbers are already adding up for Square and the USA Today reporter closes with the observation that “Square, which makes its money by collecting transaction fees, has helped merchants process sales for $4 billion worth of goods — double what it announced late last year. More than 1 million people are able to accept credit cards with Square. Their average purchase is $75.” If Square is poised to kill off POS as we know it, could something similar be lurking in ATM’s future? How much do we truly know about of what’s happening “behind the scenes”?

And would we even be surprised should we remove the skin of a future ATM only to see, lying in a rack, a variation of today’ more popular tablet PCs coupled to a Square-like device that protrudes ever so slightly through the metal work? All solar-powered, of course, and tapping directly and wirelessly into the Internet. Total product cost — well, how about $99 or thereabouts (plus cash cartridge metalwork and the hardened chassis); so much for ATMs that cost less than $10,000!

It may prove to be a stretch but from what I have seen executed by auto manufacturers with such specialty cars as the Corvette, as well as by computer vendors with equally specialized systems like the Tandem/NonStop, can the ATM be far behind? While many in the Financial Services Industry may think we have already made it, can we be sure?

Prices have certainly come down significantly, but have we even more ways to go? From where I sit and from what I have seen, I for one believe so and if this should eventuate, the numbers of ATMs shipped to new and emerging markets is going to blow through the roof. When was the last time you checked under the hood?

For more on this topic, visit our components research center.

 


Topics: Components, Hardware Components, Software, Wireless


Richard Buckle / Richard Buckle is the founder and CEO of Pyalla Technologies LLC. He has enjoyed a long association with the IT industry as a user, vendor, and more recently, as an industry commentator.
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