Visa IT CTO on open systems, security

David Allen, chief technology officer at Visa International's IT unit, has recently overseen the opening of a new, 6500 square-metre data centre and the rollout of an upgrade to its global antifraud system. Davis spoke to Computerworld about his security initiatives and IT challenges.

What technology challenges keep you up at night?

The No. 1 technology challenge at Visa is continuing our unparalleled availability. As we introduce more and more change at an ever-increasing rate, keeping that going and developing systems architectures that are more permissive to change keeps me going.

Are you looking to open systems to help you with that?

We use open systems very extensively. We have more than 3000 open systems servers running as part of our production services. Any impression that we're just a mainframe shop would be incorrect. All our information-mining capabilities and data warehousing is 95 percent open systems. And most of our new development is open systems-based.

How are you bolstering encryption as customers become more wary of identity and data theft?

First, you have to look at the whole value chain from the merchant through the issuer and back again. Visa is investing hundreds of millions of dollars a year along the entire stream of security and data protection effort. Encryption is part of that, but it's not an answer all by itself.

Today, [data] on our messaging stream is unencrypted. And file exchange, that's almost always encrypted because those are the financial transactions. We hear the cry out there, and we're not standing still.

Are you considering encrypting data at rest?

Absolutely.

On disk and tape?

Yep. We followed a lot of practices over time that separate key pieces of data that even without encryption tend to make [the data] useless unless collated. Taking that aside, we've begun a program to encrypt our data at rest and expect to be rolling that out over the next couple of years.

Is the new data centre in Denver the largest you've built to date?

Yes.

You have full redundancy in that data centre. Do you plan to add that same type of redundancy to your other data centres?

We do have a plan to upgrade our other centres. Exactly what they'll look like is still [to be determined]. We aren't beginning the next data centre until we're finished with this particular operation.

What is the biggest challenge to the financial services industry as a whole today?

The consolidation that's gone on and payments in general . . . pose some huge challenges. When you look at our industry, the question of how to meet the needs of these megaplayers when you're a Visa and continue to serve the needs of vast number of others in the industry is the challenge.

The top 10 merchants have 8 percent of [personal consumer expenditures]. Clearly, the top 10 card-issuing banks have a huge percentage of the market. The main challenge is to be able to continue to meet their needs and the needs of the smaller players in the market.

What technology is going to help you do that?

I think the ability to provide low-cost, rapid customization. Obviously, we're going to have less customization for the smaller players than the big players. It's just a matter of scale, but they'll still require things that need customization.

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