STEP ONE IN FINANCIAL SERVICES DIGITAL TRANSFORMATION: OVERCOME TECHNICAL DEBT

By Olivier Huynh Van, CTO and Co-founder, Glue Networks

Olivier Huynh Van
Olivier Huynh Van

Digital transformation holds great promise for financial institutions, including greater efficiencies, reduced costs and new product and service possibilities. This means that the network that underpins the business is going through a process of rapid change. IDC forecasts that disruptive technologies will be in use at 50 percent of banks worldwide by 2020, accelerating digital transformation by 30 percent.

However, a significant hurdle to overcome in the process of digitization is what’s known as “technical debt,” a term borrowed from programming that relates to technology that make changes in technology more difficult. There are three primary ways that this debt manifests and complicates life for network administrators.

The network infrastructure of a financial institution is the most expensive from of “technical debt.” Hardware such as routers, switches and other appliances require significant capital expenditures and are intended to be deployed for a minimum of five to seven years, in most cases.

Second on the list of technical debts is the IT management systems built around the network infrastructure. Oftentimes, this involves custom scripts, order management systems, change management tools, monitoring platforms and other various databases and instrumentation to keep the network running.

A third form of technical debt that may not seem as obvious is the applications running on the network. There are often applications running that cannot be shut down or run on legacy systems—like identity verification services, investment management systems and currency converters—causing pain for IT operations that are tasked with keeping everything running seamlessly.

The Struggle to Blend Equipment

Flexible, scalable hardware and software are needed in today’s fast-moving network infrastructure. Based on current business needs, network solutions are more likely to be integrated with brownfield, legacy environments. However, blending new and existing equipment is a much larger task than ever before. As technology evolves, best-of-breed solutions are being developed at a much quicker pace, sometimes faster than IT teams can evaluate, purchase and integrate.

An immediately relatable consumer example would be buying a smartphone. Let’s say you bought a smartphone two years ago, the best one you could afford. Before you get it out of the box and set up, it seems there is already an upgraded model with new features you couldn’t previously afford, on sale for less than you originally paid. The same is true for organizations that have established networks. And depending on the purchase approval cycle, new equipment that has been evaluated and ordered is, in essence, outdated before it even gets installed on the network. Now consider the legacy hardware and software that is still relevant within the network. Most organizations today can’t afford to rip and replace existing equipment. Rather, they must look at new solutions through the lens of “What will work in my existing environment with the least amount of downtime and set-up AND will still be relevant when it arrives?”

Unless a financial institution has an unlimited budget—and who does?—upgrading universally across the entire network spectrum is next to impossible. Hence, financial service providers big and small are experiencing technical debt.

Tips for Digitization

As network administrators work to integrate new and old equipment, the idea is not to dumb down the new equipment but to simplify the older and more cumbersome equipment. It really comes down to efficiency.

With efficiency and simplicity in mind, consider these three tips for creating a plan to tackle you technical debt:

  1. Develop a vision and strategy that goes the distance, whether it is moving toward software-defined networking, a hybrid solution or simply upgrading equipment. Require programmatic interfaces from existing network suppliers to ensure your existing equipment and new purchases can be seamlessly integrated.
  2. Conduct a rigorous assessment to identify what “debt” your organization must continue to live with, like specific network infrastructure and in-house applications. Then determine what hardware or software can be taken offline or replaced with the least amount of impact.
  3. Business needs usually drive the prioritization of the IT organization, which will determine where the IT budget needs to be allocated for new and improved service offerings. Applications today usually provide options that support virtualization-based platforms in either public or private clouds. Network management tools are moving to consolidated models that provide more robust, flexible platforms in order to support multiple network vendors while moving away from proprietary and home-grown solutions.

Consider, for instance, the abstraction layer, the software that translates high-level requests into the low-level commands required to perform an operation. The most common abstraction layer is the programming interface (API) between an application and the operating system. High-level calls are made to the operating system, which executes the necessary instructions to perform the task. While there are multiple layers of abstraction, today’s applications are often programmed in the same way. For example, selecting menu options and dragging icons around the screen can write a program. These movements may be translated into a high-level language that is then translated into a low-level language and further translated into machine language. The farther away from the machine language of the computer that an operation is programmed, the more instructions are needed to execute a particular task.

Now, add to that the fact that the operating system may be executing 10 times as many instructions as necessary, and we have a better understanding as to why, even on a fast computer, a user may be able to press the keyboard keys faster than the program can accept the input. Considering modern personal computers execute upwards of two billion instructions per second, compared to the first PCs that executed one million, the extra machine cycles are absorbed layer to layer, each one telling the next one what to do.

Network administrators working within a brownfield environment must think about distinctive methods, procedures and operations directly correlated to the number of unique vendors in their network, plus unique functions. Load balancers, switches and routers are dimensional. In other words, even if you have a Cisco router, its switches have disparate ways of operating because they are not the same product. Wouldn’t it be great to go to a one-to-many model rather than a one-for-one model?

Finding an abstraction layer that removes the management of all the solutions to a point where there is commonality creates greater efficiency. Once that is identified, network operations can then be continuously refreshed, even if there is older equipment embedded in the network below it. With the proper abstraction, your organization can handle heterogeneous networks because it has abstracted the management of the solution.

 Stepping Toward Unification

In the move toward digital transformation—while living with brownfield equipment—an organization must take three key steps:

  • Define: Based on the dynamic business needs of your organization, define an IT strategy and allocate IT budget around revenue-driving opportunities.
  • Unify: Start the process of unifying the organization so that the data center, WAN and LAN teams all are working toward a common goal of improved application delivery and agility. If possible, take it a step further by consolidating networking platforms, management and service delivery platforms.
  • Adopt: To achieve continuous integration and deployment, adopt DevOps principles across the organization. Select platforms that are programmable and work across multi-vendor networks. Since brownfield network devices do not have an API available, automation can talk directly to each device using its own CLI/semantics. Through this consolidation and by migrating away from closed platforms, you will better enable automation and orchestration across the IT infrastructure.

Agility is a necessity in the complex and dynamic network environments of today. These networks need abstraction, automation and control, which can all be found in next-generation solutions. They automate the mundane aspects of network orchestration and connect older and new network solutions seamlessly. Greater efficiency is the result, reducing a financial institution’s technical debt. 

About the author:

Olivier Huynh Van is the visionary inventor of Gluware technology and leads R&D for Glue Networks. Previously, Olivier was the former CTO of Yelofin Networks, and has 20 years experience designing and managing mission critical global networks for ADM Investor Services, Groupe ODDO & Cie, Natixis, Oxoid and Deutsche Bank. Olivier holds a Master’s Degree in Electronics, Robotics and Information Technology from ESIEA in Paris, France.

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