Westpac opts for fat over thin

Westpac New Zealand is considering Linux as a future operating system for back-end systems at branches and even its mainframes.

Services manager Glenn Patrick says the bank has decided not to take the thin-client approach for the present, opting for Windows 2000 PCs on broadband connections for counter staff. Earlier this year, there were suggestions it would be moving in the thin-client direction (see Westpac scopes thin client).

Current back-end systems are based on Microsoft software while the mainframes carry big Cobol/DB2 applications running on IBM mainframe OSes.

"We have had thoughts in the non-Windows direction," says Patrick. "We're looking at options for Linux in our [branch] host environment, and it could run on the mainframes, if we decide it makes sense to do that. We're always looking for improved total cost of ownership [TCO], but we also have to consider reliability. Some technologies have not been around long enough."

Westpac desktops, he says, will be web-oriented when it comes to communicating with the back-end systems where most of the information is stored.

"We won't build too much intelligence at the front, but they're not thin clients, because we have to [provide the operators with] other functions."

These include the ability to create and edit documents with Microsoft Word, and to send and receive email.

The basis for the fundamental transaction and administration tasks will be a Unisys-developed platform called Transactor. Applications will be built on top of that, and may involve packaged software.

Because of the relatively large amount of data exchanged between desktop and back-end, and the desire for a faster response to better serve the customer, broadband is a necessity, Patrick says. Some of the desktops have been operating until now on 9.6kbit/s links. New links will "typically be 256K or 512K, but in some cases may be up to 1Mbit/s".

Online services will include universal access to the bank's intranet and to procedural manuals stored in electronic form.

Nine branches are being equipped by Christmas, then the bank will take a break and start the rollout again early next year.

Westpac has a combination of archit-ectures, with web orientation based on IBM's WebSphere and increasingly heavy use of Java interfacing with the mainframes, and some client-server staying in the mix. ATMs must also be supported.

"We pull it all together with middleware," Patrick says, the primary tool being IBM's MQ; eventually "any of our front ends will be able to talk to any of our back ends".

The bank's head office move to Auckland raised the question of IT capability being relocated from Wellington, but this will not happen, says Patrick.

"EDS, IBM and Infinity are all partners and they're all based down here [Wellington], so I see no strategic advantage in a move.

"More of our business engagement managers, our conduit between the users and the technology, will be based in Auckland."

And the bank's main data centres are already in Auckland, he says, so no moving expense or extra communications capacity will be needed for that part of the operation.

Westpac is "assessing the merits" of voice over IP using its new broadband links. "It offers potentially better utilisation of the infrastructure we have at lower unit cost," but a decision will only be made over the next year, Patrick says.

Westpac NZ retains close contacts with its Australian counterpart, which makes sense in planning capability and assessing the direction of the overall market, he says.

"We think in terms of our combined [market] size. A lot is done together at the level of architectural blueprints and the broad directions we take with technology."

But sharing applications is more risky, he says.

"You have to be careful that you fully understand what you're taking on. We have different scales of operation, different legislation, in some cases different demographics, and our technologies also reflect our time of entry into certain markets."

BNZ, where Patrick was previously IT manager, aroused some internal misgivings by acting as test-bed for a massive SAP implementation for its owner the National Australia Bank, a project that experienced delays and alleged budget blowout (see BNZ 'guinea-pig' for NAB's slowly rising SAP). Nothing of a similar nature is contemplated at Westpac, he says.

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