Dispensing With Failure

 
 
By Samuel Greengard  |  Posted 2009-09-09
 
 
 

In today’s data-centric world, organizations face a growing challenge to sift and sort data in a way that drives innovation and performance gains. Those able to assemble the pieces of the puzzle most effectively create order from chaos and address sophisticated business challenges. In almost every instance, they can achieve a clear competitive advantage.

At Dayton, Ohio-based NCR, a $5.3 billion manufacturer of ATMs, kiosks, data warehousing software and information processing systems, the desire to put data to work in new and innovative ways has led the company down a path of predictive analytics. The ability to monitor ATMs and other electronic systems and determine mean failure rates and other potential issues has helped the company boost uptime while also reducing operating costs. “It has provided a framework for high availability and improved customer service,” says Chris Wallace, senior vice president of NCR Services.

That’s no small matter. Today, banks, airlines, hotels, retailers and many other entities use ATMs, kiosks, point-of-sale devices, computerized registers and self-service checkouts to serve their customers. NCR supplies 19 of the 20 largest banks in the United States, 17 of the top 20 retailers, five of the six largest airlines and eight of the 10 top telecommunications firms. In fact, the company’s reach extends to 110 countries and more than half a million electronic systems. If these systems go down, business comes to a screeching halt.

“Our mission is to lead the self-service revolution,” Wallace says. “ATMs and other systems have evolved from simply another way to conduct business to the primary channel for customer interaction. They’ve also moved from dedicated devices that handle a single primary task—such as dispensing cash—into far more complex systems that sell multiple products and services. Today, there is a mission-critical element to managing these systems.”

AT A GLANCE

Company: NCR Corp.

Headquarters: Dayton, Ohio

Sales: $5.3 billion (2008)

Employees: 22,400 worldwide

Business: Manufacturer of ATMs, kiosks, data warehousing software and information processing systems

Business Challenge: Manage, maintain and repair more than 30,000 ATMs, 200,000 retail devices, 100,000 network devices and 235,000 electronic point-of-sale devices in 110 countries

Infrastructure: Oracle EBS (r11 & r12) applications running on Sun Solaris and IBM AIX; business intelligence software from Microsoft and Business Objects, as well as proprietary software; APTRA financial management system; Teradata data warehouse; Cisco Systems content switches; Oracle RAC; Symantec Veritas cluster manager; EMC DMX storage; BlackBerry devices for field technicians and others.

Core Software: NCR Interactive Insight

Dispensing With Failure

Sifting through mountains of data to find patterns and trends is no simple task. In fact, only a few years ago, the process was almost unimaginable. But advances in networking technology, remote diagnostics, shared databases and the algorithms used to run analytics software have taken a giant leap forward. Taking advantage of these advances, NCR began using next-generation monitoring and analytics systems a decade ago.

Over the past several years, the 125-year-old company has focused on moving from a reactive environment—one where it dispatches technicians to sites only after receiving repair calls—to one in which NCR increasingly makes repairs, updates and changes to systems before a problem occurs. It monitors data streaming in from units in the field, as well as from Websites, call centers, help desks and the BlackBerrys technicians carry with them.

The company uses this data to determine when hardware or software requires a fix. It also uses remote diagnostics software to facilitate repairs on systems that are located across town or on the other side of the world.

In addition, NCR Interactive Insight software—developed internally—utilizes advanced data modeling and leverages the company’s vast data store to mine variables such as mean time be-fore failure, installation date, tally counts and repair history so that it can predict service actions.

“If we’re aware that a mechanism typically fails after 10,000 times, we can schedule a repair at 9,900 transactions,” Wallace points out. “That means a customer doesn’t wind up frustrated by a machine that’s not working, and we are able to manage staffing better.”

NCR also gauges customer be-havior—using commercially available business intelligence products from Microsoft and Business Objects along with its proprietary software and algorithms—to better understand how individuals use ATMs, kiosks and self-service checkouts. This data streams into a 24TB Teradata data warehouse via an Oracle E-Business Suite and NCR’s APTRA financial systems management platform.

The company also put translation layers in place to tackle Extract, Transform, Load (ETL) functions. The data conversions occur anywhere from three times a day to near real time.

The result? Substantial gains for NCR customers. For example, a U.K.-based bank with more than 40 million customers worldwide used recommendations developed through the use of NCR’s Interactive Insight application to improve the availability of more than 6,000 ATMs. Through the proactive analysis of service data, the bank trimmed service incidents by 17 percent year over year. The bottom line? A 50 percent reduction in hardware downtime (from 0.8 percent to 0.4 percent) over the same period.

And a retail customer witnessed a40 percent decline in hardware downtime at its self-checkout lanes through the use of analytics. NCR introduced annual preventive maintenance activities that targeted the actual causes of downtime, and delivered an engineering redesign on a component that had a higher-than-expected failure rate.

Finally, NCR reviewed data for specific stores in order to identify sites with higher-than-normal equipment failures. This resulted in additional training so that employees could oversee equipment and avert wear and damage.

Cashing in on Analytics

NCR conducts 22,000 service actions every day for companies scattered all around the world. While a bank in Egypt must cope with sandstorms that jam cash dispensing mechanisms, an institution in the Northeast United States demands equipment that is able to withstand subfreezing temperatures and ice.

The data warehouse allows NCR to maintain a single resource for managing this information. This eliminates conflicting data and glitches that often occur in data marts and other systems that aren’t synced.

This approach also makes it possible for various users—engineers, technicians, product managers, executives and others—to view the same data across the enterprise. And it helps NCR engineer solutions for customers based on their specific needs.

“When we received feedback about problems with sand affecting card readers, we developed a special hinged door that covers them and prevents damage,” Wallace explains. “When we learned that subfreezing temperatures make some units inoperable, we introduced internal heaters.”

Not surprisingly, NCR is continuing the drive toward more advanced analytics and new product offerings. The firm recently released next-generation ATMs that interconnect its systems with customer software to further automate monitoring and diagnostics.

In addition, the company is developing visual aids that show when and where problems occur through a customer’s Network Operations Command Center. And it is assembling advanced algorithms that provide more robust monitoring capabilities, including recognizing how and when customers have trouble using the interface or specific features.

Underpinning the analytics systems is NCR’s robust technology platform. The company operates a primary data center in Ohio and secondary locations scattered around the world.

Using Cisco content switches, as well as Oracle Real Time Application Clustering and other tools, NCR keeps its data storage systems running at 99.9-plus percent uptime. It also maintains a hot standby mode with 99.4-plus percent uptime.

“Our mission is to provide the highest level of availability,” Wallace concludes. “By updating and repairing systems before a problem occurs, we’re able to distinguish ourselves and provide the level of service that our customers require.”