Egg hatches masterplan for ultra-speedy IT project

A series of Web banking glitches and security holes have hogged the limelight in major Internet banking launches over the past...

A series of Web banking glitches and security holes have hogged the limelight in major Internet banking launches over the past year. However, security is not the only concern when launching online financial service: time to market is also a critical factor

IT managers who are developing a Web-based financial service should consider component-based software if they want to hit project deadlines and keep costs down, according to the man in charge of a major e-banking software project.

Software engineers at Prudential’s online bank Egg developed its Web-based credit card service in three months with component-based software development, supported by a layer of flexible middleware.

The speedy three-month development would usually take at least twice as long, said Lawrence Neech, IT change manager at Egg.

About 20 Egg IT staff worked on developing different layers of components. Others worked on the service’s Web front-end or with the call centre.

“We used software components that were loosely coupled with libraries,” said Neech. “It helped speed things up, especially for the middleware and the back-end.”

And, in a high-stakes gamble, Egg also decided to make a clean break from the IT systems of its parent company Prudential.

Only the Prudential’s core banking system was retained for the launch of the credit card service. “We only kept the core banking system, everything else was up for grabs,” said Neech. “Don’t reinvent what you have already. Start from a blank page.”

At the moment, the consensus is that companies are skimping on software testing before launching financial services over the Web. So, mindful of other’s mistakes, Egg put the site through standard stress testing, bombarding the system with as much demand as it could.

But according to Neech, a middleware layer is also a key factor for ensuring that a Web service can handle the erratic peaks of consumer demand after the high-profile launch.

Egg developed a middleware platform in-house for their the credit card launch. Based around Unix and C++, it allowed Egg to handle a surge in credit card applications.

“The volume of transactions hit our IT systems,” said Neech, highlighting a problem which has dogged online financial services. “Customers noticed that response times were getting worse. But because of our middleware architecture we could increase the number of application processing functions and add more hardware.”

Egg used the middleware to adjust the capacity of its IT systems through load balancing. “One of the luxuries of middleware is the ability to tweak performance,” explained Neech.

The final role of the middleware was to act as a kind of glue to piece diverse operating systems and platforms. “We can develop something on NT and run it on AS/400 by having the middleware act as a transportation layer between servers,” said Neech.

Component-based software development and middleware have kept a relatively low profile in IT. But the case of Egg’s online credit card roll out has highlighted the role they can play in developing robust Web sites quickly with a limited number of IT staff.

The rash of recent security scares in Web banking has drawn attention to the importance of software testing. But software testing is unable to predict the great unknown factor of consumer demand once a system goes live.

Middleware does at least give IT managers the ability to adjust IT systems on the fly in response to peaks and troughs in demand.

Egg’s weird weekend

Egg’s approach to motivating its IT staff is as idiosyncratic as its approach to IT development and TV advertisements (Egg and you sitting in tree k-i-s-s-i-n-g…).

To help software engineers break free from previous programming assumptions, Egg organises three- to five-day sessions away from work in a hotel.

In a wide-ranging “transformation” process employees are encouraged to talk about their work and personal pet hates in often emotionally-charged sessions. At the end of the training an employee is “transformed”, although this is a personal decision.

The idea is to unlock creativity and “energise”, according to Egg. The unusual training sessions snowballed from e-mail support groups started by staff.

“People can start crying and breaking down in front of the group,” said Lawrence Neech, IT change manager at Egg. “It is a watershed for a lot of people.”

More traditional managers may be critical of such new age techniques, but Neech defended the company’s methods, pointing to the success so far. “Some people are sceptical,” he said, “but then how do you explain how [the three-month Web credit card development] could be done?”

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