Chicago Bank Finds High Availability a Good Investment in Reputation
by Alex Woodie
Like many financial institutions, First American Bank relies on computers to provide its customers with self-service access to their bank accounts via the Internet, ATMs, and telephone voice-response systems. If the Chicago bank's primary data processing system suddenly became unavailable, its customers could be unable to access their money. Last year First American installed high availability software from DataMirror to ensure its iSeries-based banking application is always online.
First American is a privately held community bank based in the Elk Grove Village suburb of Chicago. With $1.8 billion in assets, 75,000 customers, and 34 branch locations, First American needs a sophisticated computer system to manage its customers' loans and deposits. Since the early 1970s, the bank had been running a proprietary, mainframe-based community banking system from NCR. Two years before Y2K, the bank decided it was time to move off the mainframe system, as NCR had stopped enhancing the software and it couldn't scale to meet First American's growing needs.
The bank replaced its NCR system with a popular OS/400-based banking system from Jack Henry & Associates called SilverLake. Running on a two-way AS/400 Model 620, SilverLake served as the bank's core data repository and housed the business logic that powered a variety of self-service offerings, such as ATM account access, online banking, and telephone-based account inquiries, as well as check imaging. These self-service applications don't run directly on First American's OS/400 server, but absolutely rely on the DB2/400 database.
Approximately 20 percent of First American's customers bank online, which is about average for a midsized community bank, even in metropolitan areas like Chicago. First American views online banking and other forms of customer self-service, like ATMs and banking by phone, as win-win scenarios, because they lower First American's costs and increase its customers' ability to access their money. However, relying on customer self-service technology also puts a bigger burden on the IT infrastructure used to deliver it. There is no human teller to hold the customer's hand when the server suddenly crashes.
In the summer of 2001, the bank's management initiated a review to examine the risks and benefits of its business continuity procedures and the ramifications of the company's IT systems not being available, says Noel Levasseur, executive vice president in charge of information systems at First American. "We really stepped back and looked at our business recovery plans, four months before 9/11. Picking up tapes and taking them to Sungaard or Comdisco just didn't make sense. There was too much at risk, too much manpower to maintain the system," he says. "So we came up with a strategy to maintain our own business recovery site."
Levasseur had more than management's backing going for him as he set out to research his company's options: the bank's AS/400 Model 620 was getting a little long in the tooth, and was due to be replaced with new iSeries hardware. As luck would have it, IBM was also offering a significant rebate, as it will often do, on iSeries servers that are used for high availability and are loaded with high availability software from one of its business partners that support clustering.
For First American, the stars were assembling in a high availability alignment. All that Levasseur had to do was to choose a high availability vendor.
Best of Breed
Jack Henry, like many ISVs, has partnerships with other software companies that provide specific applications its customers might need. For high availability needs, Jack Henry has a partnership with Lakeview Technology, one of the oldest and largest OS/400 high availability software providers. In fact, Jack Henry, based in Monett, Missouri, went to the Chicago software company to help it modify the SilverLake application to run in a clustered environment, through Lakeview's FastPath solution service. In 2001, SilverLake was certified as IBM ClusterProven.
For First American, Lakeview would have been the easiest, most comfortable, and most logical choice for a high availability software provider. After all, Jack Henry's technicians have expertise in Lakeview's MIMIX, and SilverLake had been certified by Lakeview for interoperability with Lakeview's cluster management software. It would have been a natural fit for a customer of Jack Henry, whose bundled hardware, software, and services offerings have imbued it with a reputation as a "one hand to shake, one neck to break" solution provider. However, Levasseur's shop doesn't subscribe to that philosophy, opting instead for a go-it-alone, "best of breed" approach that is evident in First American's product selections for ATM, online banking, and check imaging requirements (none of them are Jack Henry products, although they all depend on the SilverLake database).
Levasseur says he spent three months deciding between the offerings from Lakeview's MIMIX and DataMirror's iCluster. In the end, Levasseur said he based his decision more on the totality of what the two vendors had to offer--including partner relationships, software discounts, and recommendations from customer reference sites--than a direct comparison of features and functionality. "MIMIX is a very credible offering," Levasseur says. "It would have been an easy and comfortable decision. But we liked the fact that our first level of support was coming from DataMirror."
Levasseur did compare the features of the two products, and he did find some differences that influenced his decision. For instance, Levasseur liked iCluster's auto-registration capability, which made it easier to replicate new objects that have been added to a library. In MIMIX's case, that's a manual process, Levasseur says.
Testing and Installation
Before making his final decision, Levasseur took iCluster and his SilverLake application to IBM's Rochester, Minnesota, lab for some performance testing. "We went through an exhaustive process," he says. "Maybe we're kind of old-school, but we wanted to validate that what we were buying would perform."
The tests went well, and they revealed that some minor tweaks would have to be made to some Jack Henry control language programs to make everything run smoothly (DataMirror recommended writing an exit point program, Levasseur says). In November 2001, First American made its decision to go with Toronto, Ontario, based DataMirror, and installation commenced the following month.
First American bought a new uniprocessor iSeries Model 820 to function as the primary SilverLake server and moved the old AS/400 Model 620 into a backup role, at a branch office in nearby Libertyville. The bank purchased and installed DataMirror's iCluster Version 1.52 on both boxes, which are running OS/400 V5R1. While First American could have used iCluster to split the SilverLake workload across the two boxes, it deployed using a traditional architecture consisting of a primary and a backup server.
The new iCluster system went live in the first quarter of 2002. The bank has performed one major role swap since going live with iCluster. Levasseur says the procedure went well, and was completed in less than 30 minutes. Looking forward, Levasseur says the bank is well-prepared to weather a major unplanned outage, as well as planned downtime due to operating system upgrades, to apply PTFs, and to run the annual SilverLake upgrade at the end of the year. (See "Relief from Planned Downtime Anxieties" for a report on how Jack Henry manages its SilverLake upgrades.) Levasseur plans to further reduce First American's risk by eliminating downtime due to backups. iCluster can be used to manage OS/400 logical partitions and keep them synchronized while they're being backed up.
Overall, Levasseur says he's pleased with the iCluster implementation. The software and the secondary server have fortified First American against possible damage to its reputation should its primary iSeries server go down, taking the associated ATM, voice response, and online banking applications with it. "We've been very happy," Levasseur says. "DataMirror has come through."
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