July 11, 2005

Visit Linux-based kiosk, get cash

Author: Tina Gasperson

Amstar Systems manufactures and sells "automatic cashiers," cash dispensing machines that run on a modified Red Hat Linux. These super ATMs allow those without bank accounts access to financial transactions that previously only bank customers could access.Bob Farris, president and CEO of Amstar, began developing the kiosks in 1999. In Carrollton, Texas, Farris discovered a larger than average population of blue-collar workers who couldn't afford to open checking or savings accounts, so he began centering development efforts around the creation of a multi-purpose machine that didn't just dispense cash, but could print out a pre-paid debit card, cash a check, transfer money, or allow a user to pay bills or make a purchase.

The Amstar kiosks are designed to cater to customers who cannot read or write, with audible instructions and easy-to-understand graphics. Farris says he has also developed a special application that employs audio to assist the blind in using the kiosks.

Amstar's newest kiosk, still in testing, offers paycheck cashing services. The client inserts a driver's license into the kiosk and the machine captures the data off the magnetic strip. The client must then answer a series of questions in order to further insure a positive identification. The client creates a PIN, and the machine issues a prepaid MasterCard debit card. Then the check is inserted and scanned for bank information and to determine the tendered amount. The user may choose to receive the full amount in cash or have some or all of the balance attached to the debit card.

Clients can find kiosks inside retail stores, as standalone units in indoor or outdoor shopping centers, and inside banks. Kiosk owners make money by charging a fee for each type of transaction.

Amstar kiosks use a browser-based Java GUI that is designed to work with touch screens. Each unit houses a standalone computer system with up to an 80GB hard drive, 512MB of RAM, and a Pentium 4 CPU running a customized version of Red Hat Linux. Farris said he started out trying to develop on Windows NT, which was "questionable, because NT locked up and it wasn't stable." All it took was one look at Linux, Farris says, and "we migrated everything over."

The challenges with Linux came when it was time to find drivers to work with the kiosk hardware. "No one developed the kind of drivers we needed." But he overcame those challenges by hiring "a few good people who understand Linux and how to write the drivers. We just wrote the drivers and command sets, and integrated everything with the GUIs without any outside assistance."

Farris and his staff of six developers have been testing the system with Mandriva and Fedora. "Not that we're unhappy with Red Hat; we're just experimenting to see what would be best suited. We've always liked Linux. It is stable and robust. It doesn't crash."

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