Linux opens London's Oyster

Open-source software helped London's Oyster-card system move past a proprietary roadblock, instantly cutting the regular charges for licensing and hosting by 80 percent
Written by Peter Judge, Contributor

Open-source software helped London's Oyster card system move past a proprietary roadblock, an open-source conference in London was told last week.

The Oyster contactless card system, which handles payments for travel on London's buses and Tube system, suffered from lock-in to proprietary systems, which hindered developments to the online payment systems, said Michael Robinson, a senior consultant with Deloitte, at the Open Source Forum event in London. "The hosting was on a proprietary system, centred on one application," he said. "It demanded certain hardware, and was locked into one design of infrastructure."

Ninety percent of all bus and underground travel in London is paid for by the Oyster RFID (radio frequency identification) cards, which began trials in 2002, and were launched by Transport for London (Tfl) in 2003. With Oyster fares generally cheaper the comparable cash fare, it's no surprise there are now 12 million cards in circulation.

Despite this success, Tfl wants more people to move to online payments and automatic top-ups, which would reduce the demands on staff and machines at stations in ticket offices. Currently, 1.4 million Oyster cards are held by registered online customers, but Tfl wants to increase this, Robinson said. "Smartcards have even more benefits when topped up online — there is no queue, and it is self service."

But expanding the online system has been a problem. Early in its life there were ambitious plans to add cashless payments to the Oyster card, making it an electronic wallet, but the idea was shelved in 2005.

Three-and-a-half years into the Oyster system's life, it became clear to Tfl there was an upgrade that could not be put off, said Robinson. Simply put, the online system wasn't up to the job. It was too expensive, did not give good enough quality of service, and was not responsive enough to support the kind of promotions Tfl wanted to use, he said: "It couldn't respond to business changes, and it didn't scale."

Oyster also faced another problem: the site had to be upgraded to meet the payment card industry's PCI DSS requirements for security, which had emerged since the scheme began.

The Oyster system, including the scanners in buses and underground stations and the back-end database, is run for Tfl by services company EDS, but Tfl turned...

...to an 18-person team at Deloitte to rebuild the online part. "Deloitte provides the online and development team for Oyster Online," said Robinson. "Tfl manages the user experience and business processes."

Before the changeover, Tfl had no control over any innovations because the architecture was inflexible, said Robinson: "The data layer was locked into a proprietary data model, with passwords encrypted using a hashing algorithm." Changes meant that at the time Tfl had to make all its customers re-register online for new passwords, but the new system uses a model where "that sort of thing won't happen".

Tfl was also at the mercy of the original supplier. "If you are locked into one organisation, they can afford to charge whatever they like — there is no competing with anyone else."

Deloitte built a web front-end that interfaces to the EDS back-end using web services. The new online system is based on open standards and open-source software, including the Apache web server, JBoss middleware and the Red Hat Enterprise Linux operating system, said Robinson.

For some parts of the system, they stuck with proprietary software — for instance, the online service is based on an Oracle database, in order to get clustering and high availability, said Robinson. "It could have been done with MySQL or Postgres, but that would have taken more consultancy time," he explained.

In cases like this, Deloitte kept away from lock-in: "We used open standards, not a proprietary flavour of them; for instance SQL, but not the Oracle flavour of it," he said, adding that "open-source products tend to be better at complying with open standards".

The new site went live in 2007, and immediately cut the regular charges for licensing and hosting by 80 percent, by allowing Tfl to shop around for the best hosting deal. This saving alone will cover the cost of the Deloitte project in a year, said Robinson, even apart from benefits such as PCI compliance and flexibility.

The site now works faster and performs better and allows new applications and code to be added with no downtime. This means the online site can now entice users to move to automatic top-up by offering them vouchers for free tracks on iTunes, something the old system would have been incapable of doing. "The Deloitte team all de-registered their Oysters, and re-registered to get the iTunes," joked Robinson.

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