Achieving continuous availability – the ultimate goal in payments

By : Nav Kullar

January 15, 2019 01:00 PM

With the biggest financial institutions handling thousands of transactions a second, it's no longer good enough to aim for high availability. Services must be 100 percent continuous and reliable.


High availability has become a key goal for businesses operating in the payments industry. But with major financial institutions responsible for handling thousands of transactions a second, even the slightest lapses in service have an impact on a considerable number of customers.


As a result, providers are increasingly looking beyond just high levels of reliability and targeting 100 percent, continuous availability.


The journey to continuous availability


In the not-so-distant past, the key target for payments systems was ‘five 9s’, meaning the payment systems were expected to be available 99.999 percent of the time.  But that still meant the service was down for over 5 minutes a year.   That was also in the world where the core banking system could be moved to ‘batch mode’ once branches shut for the day. 


Of course systems and processes have improved such that ‘six 9s’ is normal which brings the service unavailability down to about 30 seconds.  As good as this might sound, the prevailing opinion in the industry is that even a few seconds of unavailability a year is too much.


The need for continuous availability is particularly clear in light of some of the key current trends in the payments sector, such as the ongoing growth of card and digital transactions.


In the EU, total non-cash payments increased by nearly eight percent to 134 billion in 2017, according to the European Central Bank. Cards accounted for more than half (52 percent) of all transactions.


Personal credit cards were the most popular payment method in the United States last year, preferred by 29.5 percent of Americans. PayPal (14.8 percent) and debit cards (9.2 percent) followed, with cash or check (eight percent) in fourth place.


In Australia, meanwhile, the governor of the country's central bank recently said the growth of electronic transactions could mean physical cash becomes a "niche payment instrument reserved only for emergencies."


However, Philip Lowe also stressed this emphasizes the need for maximum reliability in electronic payments. With consumers becoming more and more reliant on cards and digital transactions, financial institutions need to ensure the right systems and processes are in place to deliver continuous availability.


Changing mindsets


Some of the biggest names in the payments industry are shifting their focus where availability is concerned. They are moving away from percentages and the 'five 9s' philosophy, and focusing on the number of transactions affected by lapses in availability, however short or infrequent they may be.


To achieve true continuous availability, systems must be designed, prepared and maintained with this goal in mind.


Some organizations are still of the mindset that it's acceptable for transaction processing platforms to be taken out of service temporarily, for instance, for upgrades to be carried out, but this will soon become untenable.


So one of the key questions facing payments businesses is: how can we make software updates and carry out maintenance without impacting availability?


The answer could lie in the DevOps methodology. Essentially based on the combination of software development and information technology operations, DevOps enables shorter systems development life cycles and facilitates regular delivery of new features, patches and upgrades.


In the payments environment, this strategy opens up the possibility of new services being deployed and key improvements being made on a regular basis, without adverse effects on availability.


NCR has witnessed first-hand how some of the biggest organizations in the global financial services industry, handling billions of transactions a year, have succeeded with this approach and achieved continuous availability with Authentic.


It's clear businesses looking to combine the highest levels of availability with maximum control over systems and functionality need a platform expressly designed for the modern payments industry. Those legacy technologies built with the ‘five 9s’ philosophy are no longer fit for purpose.


Businesses equipped with flexible and customizable transaction processing solutions will be the ones leading the race towards continuous availability.



Nav Kullar

Payments Marketing Manager

Other articles by this author

Nav is a marketing manager for Payments at NCR and is based in the UK. She is responsible for the marketing of NCR Payment solutions, with a specific focus on the transaction processing platform Authentic. Nav has over 15 years of experience in the payments business with previous marketing roles at Visa and Elavon.