MasterCard's robust data centre: priceless

A rare tour of the global technology operations centre that processes 5.4 million credit card transactions per hour

If a severe tornado touches down in the US, west of St. Louis, you might have trouble using your MasterCard.

The credit card company's global technology operations centre, based in the US, is strong enough to withstand a 160-mile-per-hour gust of wind, says it's acting president, Rob Reeg, who hosted a group of journalists touring the facility last month.

MasterCard International processes about US$18 billion of transactions every year, at a rate of about 5.4 million transactions per hour through its GTO centre. The company says each transaction takes about 129 milliseconds. Although merchant and customer accounts are handled by their respective banks, MasterCard acts as a middleman, processing all of the transactions through its 25,000 square foot data centre, with mainframes, servers and storage space.

Company officials won't disclose the number of employees working at the centre, nor will they reveal the bandwidth of their wide-area network or any other details, like databases. But they did reveal a few tidbits of information that could serve as a guide to IT departments supporting high-speed transaction processing.

The data centre is monitored 24 hours a day, seven days a week by a team of network engineers, network operators, operations technician, systems analysts and shift supervisors.

Reeg said the centre is built not only to support high winds, but also exceeds the structural engineering standards required to withstand earthquakes.

The data centre is cooled with three cooling towers, said John Eubanks, the GTO's senior business leader for data centre operations. "We can run with one but we have three, so it cuts down on the effort any one would have to work," he said. "It's just water being passed over grills and fans blowing cold air into the data centres."

The GTO is connected to the local power utility at two separate sub-stations, but only needs one sub-station for its power. Eubanks said MasterCard has three generators at the station, and can use two at a time with the third one idling, so if the municipal power fails and one generator fails, MasterCard can bring the second generator online.

The GTO is served by more than one carrier, and it has four separate connections to the wide-area network in case one stops working, Eubanks said. He would not say how much bandwidth the GTO's connections have with the outside world. "I won't go into specific, but take OC and put numbers on the end of it and that will give you an idea," he said. "They're huge."

The operators in the operations centre not only monitor the mainframes, network and servers, but they also get a bird-eye view of the 1,200 end points on MasterCard's wide-area network, which is comprised mainly of data centres at banks serving both the cardholders and merchants.

Reeg said some banks have six end points, and most have two so if one fails, MasterCard can re-route traffic to the other. The GTO constantly pings each end point to make sure it's up and running. All end points are plotted on to a Google Earth display, located at the front of the operations centre, which is flanked by televisions showing live feeds of both The Weather Channel and CNN, so MasterCard can find out if any of its supported banks might be affected by severe weather or political events.

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