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DBS Bank goes big on open source

Besides using a slew of open source software, DBS Bank is looking to contribute some of its own projects to the open source community in future

Open source software has been pivotal to DBS Bank’s digital transformation journey, paving the way for access to innovations that are at the forefront of technology, according to the bank’s group CIO David Gledhill.

Speaking to Computer Weekly in an exclusive interview, Gledhill noted that besides tapping enterprise-grade open source products from the likes of Red Hat, DBS also experiments with open source projects and algorithms in key aspects of its IT operations.

DBS’s data analytics initiatives, for example, are built on Apache Spark, Python and Hadoop, as well as databases such as PostgreSQL and MariaDB, all of which enable the bank to leverage the best of open source technologies, Gledhill said.

Gledhill admitted that apart from Linux, DBS uses open source software mostly in the platform layer, noting that the open source applications space is still in its infancy. “We’re not going to have our core banking systems on open source any time soon,” he said.

The bank, Southeast Asia’s largest by market capitalisation, currently uses Red Hat OpenShift and Pivotal Cloud Foundry as its application platforms. Gledhill said DBS chose the two platforms because it “didn’t want to bet on just one horse”.

“Frankly, we still don’t know who will be the winner of that race, so maybe we will stay with two platforms which still have a lot of components that we want to use,” he said.

But DBS is not just a user of open source software. Gledhill said the bank may well be contributing its own projects to the open source community in future.

“The idea of having an open source DBS platform has its advantages,” he said. “For one thing, if developers know their source code is going to be published, they will be much more careful about how they write it because they will get the biggest peer review ever, so our code quality will go up.”

Meanwhile, DBS is already participating in some open source projects, and is looking to contribute to open source software tooling, artificial intelligence (AI) models and projects focused on data – areas where it has benefited the most from open source, Gledhill said.

DBS’s agile culture

Fostering an agile culture is just as critical for organisations to be successful in developing and using open source software. Gledhill said DBS’s goal is to create a 27,000-strong start-up that is customer focused, data-driven and has the ability to take risks and experiment.

“If we want to be truly innovative, we have to do experiments, of which some work and some don’t,” he said. “We have to accept failure and pivot fast – that has very much become a part of our culture of experimentation that enables us to be agile.”

From an organisational perspective, DBS has structured its teams to work on 33 different platforms spanning wealth, lending and payment services.

“Our business and technology teams responsible for developing digital products that sit on each platform have joint KPIs [key performance indicators] and budgets that allow them to experiment and iterate,” Gledhill said. “We also need to learn and re-learn as no one knows everything about the latest technologies.”

Although DBS is a proponent of open source, it is pragmatic in areas where proprietary cloud services from the likes of Amazon Web Services (AWS) make sense.

“Take for example what we’re doing with AI and machine learning – we believe native cloud services, such as voice processing, from cloud providers provide better solutions than open source,” said Gledhill.

Still, he believes having open source equivalents of proprietary cloud services will limit the ability of cloud suppliers to command a premium for their services. “If I’m using Redshift from AWS, it better be priced fairly equivalent to an open source variant or I’ll use the open source one,” he said.

As with any investment in technology, open source or not, enterprises have had to demonstrate returns.

In the case of DBS, Gledhill said through automation, and by powering applications with open source application platforms and databases that run on commodity hardware, the bank has slashed operating costs by as much as 80%.

Notably, DBS’s technology spending has been flat since 2014, while the cost of operations as a percentage of income has declined by 40%, according to Gledhill. “That has given us a lot of extra dollars to spend on investments in new technologies, business solutions and front-end applications,” he said.

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