Innovation fuels NAB's Linux foray

A shift to Linux-based grid computing at the National Australia Bank has opened the gate to a more agile IT infrastructure and dramatically reduced maintenance costs, according to one of the bank's senior technology strategists.

Speaking at a Red Hat Linux event in Sydney yesterday, the NAB's architecture strategy manager for enterprise technology Simon Spencer, said the bank needed to be more innovative with its infrastructure because it is becoming more important to be able to deliver cost-effective, agile and integrated financial services solutions.

To explore infrastructure options, NAB established a Linux innovation lab, dubbed "G2", and ported a number of its core applications to Oracle 10g on Red Hat Linux.

The G2 name came from the two databases it contained - inbound transactions from ATMs to an operational database, like a piece of middleware, and the replacement of the bank's global warehouse.

After a successful trial phase, the bank went live with a global data warehouse which has been in production for the past year.

"The NAB now runs one of the largest data warehouses at around 11TB with 30GB of raw transactions a day [processed] on a Linux-based infrastructure," Spencer said.

He said the data warehouse is used for every "major part" of the bank but critically for financial reporting, global risk management, and regulatory reporting, including Basel II compliance.

Spencer attributes the change to a culture of innovation in the bank, which is not just in one central group.

"[NAB] has a culture of open innovation," he said. "Could we use Linux inside NAB? We grabbed a consortium of partners in a room who coughed up hardware and support to find out."

The original project, called "Pinta" after the fastest of Columbus' three ships, showed the bank it could move to Linux, but also showed what was missing, such as storage drivers from EMC.

With the global data warehouse and "Super Mart" database in place, the bank has also experienced significant cost savings by moving to Linux on Intel and away from Solaris on Sparc.

The previous system was a Sun E10,000, which was costing upwards of $800,000 in maintenance fees for the hardware alone.

"Comparing the transaction throughput wasn't a fair comparison as the E10,000 was older, but what was important was we could do the port, it was stable, and not expensive," Spencer said. "And the Sun Solaris competencies could be migrated across."

With the data warehousing projects now merged, the NAB has 10, 4-way Itanium-based servers in a shared grid infrastructure.

Spencer said moving from a "big SMP" system to low-cost hardware was a big change for the bank, but it has resulted in faster processing and more flexible procurement.

"Capacity planning for a new project is inherently risky, [but] we can buy additional capacity in lots of $40,000 which is easy to "smooth out" to the business," he said.

While conceding banks have been typically conservative and risk-averse, Spencer said there is greater risk in doing nothing.

With Linux having proven itself at the bank, the next steps on NAB's open source journey involved people "picking up operating system tools at all levels, and a limited amount on the desktop".

As for open source databases, Spencer said the bank is open to discussion, but does not see a compelling reason to do so now.

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