Bank of Ireland UK invests in reliable system

As a financial services company, Bank of Ireland UK needed a highly scalable and reliable system

As a financial services company, Bank of Ireland UK needed a highly scalable and reliable system

  • Business description Bank of Ireland UK is a financial services company
  • Business challenge Provide  a robust and continuously available IT infrastructure to support a new mission-critical mortgage application
  • Solution Deploy a highly scalable and reliable system, which is monitored round-the-clock to ensure business continuity
  • Services Technical consultancy, systems integration and engineering, project management, managed availability/remote monitoring, technology supply

The phenomenal rise in house prices over the last couple of years has led to a massive boom in the UK’s lending market. In July 2002, gross mortgage advances hit a record high of £21.8 billion*, an increase of 41% year-on-year. With so much at stake, the market has become increasingly competitive with lending providers vying to gain and retain customers, who are shopping around more than ever.

Technology has a huge role to play in this battle, as it can make a massive difference to the customer experience by automating the lending process, making it simpler and quicker for mortgage applications to be completed. This increasing reliance on technology, however, is not without its risks. If a mission-critical mortgage system were to fail, a company could lose thousands of pounds for every minute of downtime.

When Bank of Ireland UK decided to roll out a new core lending application, it needed to ensure that it did not expose itself to any such business continuity risks. The company brought in IT infrastructure services provider Computacenter to implement a highly scalable and flexible system, and to monitor the infrastructure to ensure it is continuously available.

Bank of Ireland UK provides a broad range of financial services that range from investment fund management and life assurance to financial advice and mortgages. These services are offered via a distinct group of businesses, including Bank of Ireland Personal Lending, which is an umbrella grouping of all the company’s lending activities in the UK. This grouping encompasses Bristol & West Mortgages, Bank of Ireland Mortgages and NIIB, an unsecured lending specialist.

The increased level of lending activity in the UK means that mortgages will continue to be an important business stream for the company in the future. The number of customer mortgages being managed by Bristol & West Mortgages alone tops the 200,000 mark.

Until recently, the company was using a variety of applications to provide its mortgage services, as Colin Halsall, Director of IS Bank of Ireland Personal Lending UK, explains. “As with most companies, our use of technology has grown considerably in the last 10 years. This growth can be difficult to control, which means companies end up with a range of disparate systems and applications that are not suited to delivering the integrated services increasingly being demanded by the business and customers.”

Reaching the summit

To ensure it was providing an optimum, end-to-end mortgage service, Bank of Ireland UK decided to embark on a massive overhaul of the lending systems being used by the personal lending group. This meant finding an application that could deal with the entire mortgage process from requesting credit checks to providing formal offers. “We wanted an integrated solution that could be customised to our needs and, as a result, enhance the customer experience,” adds Colin.

The company opted for Summit, a retail banking application that supplier Lynx Financial Systems recommends runs on a Unix platform. “This presented us with a massive challenge,” comments Colin. “We chose the application because we were impressed with its functionality, but our choice meant we were committing to rolling out a platform which involved technology that was completely alien to us.”

Bank of Ireland UK had a mainframe and NT architecture and, as a result, lacked the in-house expertise to implement the infrastructure needed to underpin the new lending application. This lack of Unix infrastructure and integration skills meant that the company needed to find a trusted IT services partner.

“Computacenter had already worked on other IT projects for Bristol & West [acquired by Bank of Ireland in 1997], plus we knew it had the breadth of technical skills we required, and experience of large-scale enterprise deployments,” comments Colin.

An infrastructure to rely on

Computacenter’s multi-vendor integration skills were to prove invaluable, as the lending project not only involved implementing high-end Sun Microsystems servers, but also a Veritas backup solution plus assisting with the design of a Citrix server farm and integrating BMC monitoring tools.

Work on designing this infrastructure began in earnest in spring 2001, as Senior Project Manager David Manders from Computacenter explains: “Our first job was to determine the most cost-effective and efficient design of the three main elements of the infrastructure – the E10000, E6500 and E450 servers – and their integration with the Summit application and the database. We also needed to ensure that the infrastructure could scale to meet the future needs of Bank of Ireland UK. As a result only half of the E10000’s capacity is currently being used.”

Thanks to its high-performance levels, the E10000 fulfils many purposes for the personal lending division, including hosting the development, testing and  production environment for the core mortgage application as well as a Tower Technology imaging application. All paper-based documents relating to customers’ mortgage applications are scanned into the system, enabling them to be accessed from the users’ desktop via Citrix XPe thin client. To ensure such vital information is still available even in times of emergency, a hot standby database has been  deployed to a Sun E6500 disaster recovery server.

Using technology from Oracle, Bank of Ireland UK is able to replicate data and transactions in near real-time to the E6500, thereby minimising any risk to business continuity. The E450 is integrated with Veritas NetBackup and a StorageTek tape library, which provide efficient backup for the system.

“We opted for a Sun-based environment because we knew it would give us the robust and reliable infrastructure we needed for such a mission-critical application,” comments Robbie Clarke, Senior Project Manager with IS Central Technology Services at Bank of Ireland UK. “The E10000 is particularly suited to our needs as it is highly scalable and resilient, therefore reducing the risk of any unplanned downtime.”

Lighting the flexibility fuse

Although the Sun infrastructure did not require any formal proof of concept, the company’s plans to distribute the application through a thin client environment needed to be validated in advance. “Summit had only been deployed in a distributed client/server environment, so we needed to prove that it was able to function just as effectively with a Citrix front-end,” adds Robbie.

To help Bank of Ireland UK achieve this, Computacenter developed a bespoke proof of concept lab to replicate the proposed Citrix MetaFrame XPe platform, based on Compaq [HP] ProLiant DL360 servers running Microsoft Windows 2000. Computacenter’s Solutions Centre has eight proof of concept labs that enable businesses to validate a huge range of enterprise technologies, and test systems integration in advance of deployment.

Due to bandwidth restrictions, Bank of Ireland UK initially planned to only use Citrix to deploy applications to non head office locations. Following the proof of concept testing, however, it became clear that greater benefits could be realised by using Citrix XPe to deploy applications to all users. “As well as reducing the amount of bandwidth requirement, we found that application deployment and manageability was far easier through Citrix,” comments Robbie.

To make the lending application even more flexible, Bank of Ireland UK has also deployed Citrix NFuse Classic, as Steve Anderton, Lead Consultant at Computacenter, explains: “Not only can the company centrally manage the new mortgage application, by using NFuse it can also distribute the software via its intranet, or even the Internet. NFuse enables users to access the application through a web-based portal from any device, whether it be a PDA or a PC, which gives the personal lending group amazing flexibility.”

The flexibility of the system - and its reliability and scalability - were put to the test in August 2002, when the solution went live with its first users. “The pilot currently involves around 220 people, but the system will eventually be used by more than 1,100 underwriters, case handlers and post workers,” comments Robbie. “More than 2,000 customer applications have so far been logged into the system, and we have already seen a significant improvement in processing times.”
The benefits of the project, which is due to be completed in September 2003, stretch beyond improved processing times, as Colin acknowledges: “The business benefits of the implementation are numerous. By enhancing the capacity, flexibility and scalability of our IT, we have been able to improve the efficiency of our lending services both for the business and our customers. Thanks to the thin client environment, the IT team will also benefit as Citrix makes managing our desktop estate and applications much simpler and more cost-effective.”

Preserving business continuity

During the project, Bank of Ireland UK decided to look for a partner to support  the Unix infrastructure. “This system is mission-critical, and has to enjoy an extremely high level of availability. Once again our decision to look externally was based on a lack of internal resources, and a desire to remove as much risk as possible from our IT operations to ensure business continuity,” comments Colin.

Despite competition from various other high-profile names, Computacenter became fully responsible for managing the availability of the infrastructure in May 2002 – during the development phase, Computacenter had provided interim support for the system. The infrastructure is remotely monitored by dedicated Unix/Sun technologists at Computacenter’s specially designed Service Operations Centre at its headquarters in Hatfield.

Peter Stafford, Director of IS for Bank of Ireland UK, adds: “This system is core to the operations of the lending group, and is leading the way for business change and new processes. With so much riding on its success, we did not want to have any risks around the technology, and so looked to Computacenter for help both on developing the platform, and then managing the ongoing availability of the infrastructure. We have been pleased with the results, and have suffered no outages.”

Computacenter’s managed availability service guarantees Bank of Ireland UK 99.8% uptime during its core business hours. Richard Brydie, Service Delivery Manager for Remote Services at Computacenter, explains how this is achieved: “By using remote monitoring tools, we are able to continuously review the performance of all the key components of the mortgage infrastructure up to the application layer, and identify in advance any problems before they impact the business. Thanks to our close relationship with Sun, we can react quickly if a disk or processor needs to be repaired or replaced.”

Such strong vendor links also enable Computacenter to identify any upgrades or patches required to the infrastructure at a later stage. This is carried out by a change manager, who has been specially assigned to the company to ensure that the infrastructure continues to meet its business requirements.

Skills that guarantee success

There is little doubt that these business requirements will change as the financial services market continues to evolve, and the web becomes omnipresent. Indeed, one of the next stages is to link the new core lending system to the bank’s online mortgage operation. The system will also eventually be used by Bristol & West International, with roll-out due to commence in 2003. “This is probably the largest IT project we have ever embarked on, and one that we could not have completed without Computacenter’s technical skills,” comments Colin.

Computacenter’s project management skills and team work are also singled out for praise by Colin. “In addition to liasing with Bank of Ireland UK, Computacenter’s project team also had to work with Sun Professional Services and CMG, who we brought in as overall programme managers. Computacenter worked extremely well with everyone involved in the roll-out, and held the infrastructure implementation together with its solid project management skills.

“The technology stream of the project has gone extremely well. Working with Computacenter was a positive experience, and one I would be happy to repeat,” concludes Colin.

* Source: Council of Mortgage Lenders

This article was part of Computer Weekly's managed services business channel, sponsored by Computacenter

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