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BUILDING AN AGILE FINANCIAL SERVICES ENVIRONMENT

As many more tech companies begin offering bank-like services, Martin Cooper, Technical Director of SolidFire, discusses how mainstream banks can fight back

There are few industries which can match the financial services sector for the sheer volume of rules and regulations governing personal information and data. This complex set of requirements and regulation creates unique tension within well-established financial services companies. They have to operate and update existing infrastructure, but also need to develop and expose new services to a customer base that expects to do everything online. Fast growing newcomers are using a ‘digital-first’ approach to fundamentally change the way consumers manage their money. In doing so, they are significantly disrupting the status quo within the industry and established institutions know they must evolve quickly to beat the newcomers at their own game or risk becoming obsolete.

Accenture’s 2014 UK Financial Services Customer Survey found that usage of internet banking has stabilised at around 80% amongst UK consumers over the last three years, but the real growth area at present is in mobile banking. Fuelled by the ubiquity of mobile devices, low-cost data and the widening availability of mobile apps, 27% of UK consumers now use mobile banking at least once a month (compared to just 10% in 2011), with the trend showing no signs of slowing down. The same report also found that consumers are becoming less fussy about who they bank with. One in five consumers would hypothetically consider banking with brands such PayPal and The Post Office, and one in eight with Tesco or John Lewis if they delivered a more seamless digital banking experience than the traditional high street banks.

The key strength of new disruptive challengers such as Apple Pay and indeed, PayPal, is their willingness to embrace agile technologies such as cloud infrastructure in order to offer consumers the services they want, when they want them. Until recently, lingering doubts over the safety and security of cloud solutions meant many traditional financial services organisations didn’t consider them as viable. However in the face of dangerous new competition, a growing body of evidence supporting the security and performance of cloud-based platforms, and the expanding range of options available, the opportunity cloud presents is simply too big to ignore any longer.

Not only can cloud solutions offer greater flexibility and collaboration opportunities, but their scalable nature means they can be used as DevOps environments for the rapid prototyping of potential new digital products and services, with banks able to easily discard the ones that don’t work and quickly move forward with the ones that do. So as security fears are allayed and cloud adoption begins to gather pace, much of the debate has shifted to the technological aspects of adoption.

For many, the risk of integrating new applications and technology with legacy systems is now the biggest concern. They are right to be worried. Across the cloud industry a perfect technology storm is forming. Virtualisation, automation and software-defined networking are all reaching maturity but the storage layer upon which everything else is built is still largely dominated by ageing technology and outdated thinking. It is the technological equivalent of building a new house on sand, an approach doomed to fail from the start. However, recent advances in technology – made possible by falling prices of solid-state (or flash) storage – are bringing some big changes.

Foremost among these is the ability to narrowly define the performance characteristics of each and every application.  It’s now possible for organisations to dial-up or dial-down the performance of each app, so ‘supply’ of performance can be closely matched to end-user ‘demand’.

These new storage foundations can also speed new apps’ progress from the sandbox to the production environment.  As the volumes of data each new app handles grow, technical personnel can very easily add new storage devices – increasing capacity and hiking performance at the same time.

Capabilities like these are critical for a 24/7 industry which simply can’t afford disruptions. This is because scale-out flash storage has no single points of failure: that compared to other storage options, it is far less vulnerable to unexpected downtime.

Traditional high street banks know they must evolve or die in the face of disruptive new competition. After a slow start, many are now starting to capitalise on the latest digital technology to take on the competition at their own game, but this cannot be done half-heartedly. Banks cannot afford to shut up shop completely while they rebuild their IT infrastructure from scratch – instead, they must innovate over the top of existing systems, which may be decades old. A scale-out flash storage platform that can guarantee both performance and uptime is undoubtedly one of the essential building blocks, helping financial institutions launch innovative new services – and giving their new competitors a dose of their own medicine in the process.