Middleware Moves to New Breadth and Depth
From the back office to the cloud, middleware has come a long way.
First used to extend XML standards from the early Internet to the world of the mainframe as the browser-based Web emerged, the world of middleware now includes the ability to dive deep into the complex virtual gears of the connected credit union, monitoring software performance and automating tedious, mistake-prone manual processes.
At one client, that adds up to two million less keystrokes a month from computer operators, said Ed Miller, senior director of Episys operations for Symitar, the credit union core processing arm of Jack Henry & Associates.
That automation of 12,000 processing jobs was via OpCon, a job scheduling platform from SMA Solutions that Miller said is now in use at 150 of its clients that run Episys in-house and more than 100 through its service bureaus.
“Another client reduced its daily processing checklist from 20 pages down to two pages,” Miller said. “These are typical results. One of the reasons OpCon works so well in our space is that it takes advantage of UNIX processing capabilities. We have situations where OpCon is handling up to 25 jobs at the same time. That's very important for our clients, especially in those night jobs.”
Kathy Hooker Burress, the former Symitar president who now heads up Texas-based SMA, said about 275 credit unions use OpCon, about 165 of them directly and the rest through service bureaus and CUSOs. In addition to Symitar, other cores clients are using include XP2, UltraData and Corelation, with Fiserv DNA working on an interface that is not yet live, Hooker Burress said.
“Our system is very event driven,” Hooker Burress said, pointing to such capabilities as pulling and posting ACH files and OFAC checking as well as the more prosaic scheduling involved with batch processing.
“One of our clients has tied HR calendars into our technology so when somebody goes on vacation, our tool will automatically disable all their logins. The minute they come back, our tool will automatically enable them. It's very powerful,” Hooker Burress said.
Ron Murray of CUTEK, a consultancy that works with credit unions running Symitar, gave plaudits to Symitar for identifying credit unions that have the need for OpCon and selling them on it. One of the immediate effects he sees is the reduction in needed manpower.
“It eliminates the need for what a lot of people have to do overnight,” Murray said. “I worked at an institution where their guys were posting things from midnight until eight in the morning. This eliminates a lot of that, a lot of the manual work needed to move files, especially.”
Application monitoring is another area where middleware has reached new heights. For instance, the $2 billion Baxter Credit Union in Vernon Hills, Ill., said it is using the Microsoft Azure hybrid cloud in its lab to run member-facing e-commerce applications off its IIS and SQL servers while running core banking functions on AIX systems, all overseen by the Microsoft System Center suite.
To help oversee that, BCU is now deploying the FactFinder application and transaction monitoring software from North Carolina-based BlueStripe Software.
“It's important to maintain control over application performance even as we expand our use of Azure hybrid-cloud platforms,” said Jeff Johnson, SVP and chief information officer at BCU and CU Times’ Trailblazer IT Executive of the Year in 2012.
“We can see at a very granular level what's happening with things like SQL talking to a UI server talking to a load balancer, and ways we can improve that performance,” Johnson said. “We’ve been doing this for about a month and have found some very good nuggets of information already that can help us improve.”
The ability to improve processes on the fly is vitally important as batch processing is replaced more and more by real-time functions.
“It's almost like the analogy of a car and a human being,” said Sabeh Samaha, a California-based consultant to credit unions. "Batch processing is like the car. You can stop a car to work on it, but with online banking and card processing and bill payment and now mobile banking, you want to operate on it while it's still moving. It's like the human being.”
Samaha said that there are a number of schedulers on the market and sometimes, they are oversold to the point where they can diffuse the ability of in-house technologists to handle things themselves.
“To a certain extent, you can argue that if everything is automated and scheduled, it can make people less effective and knowledgeable than might be needed,” Samaha said. “We like our credit unions to stand strong on their own two feet, where possible.”
Jim Trautwein, a veteran technologist who now consults for Arizona-based Cornerstone Advisors, said there are valid reasons for some to select best-of-breed workflow solutions, but that he also recommends credit unions first look within before adding on yet another layer of software.
“If a core has those capabilities, they should use it. They’ve already invested in it and you only have to train users once. You don't have to have users log into multiple systems and mess with interfaces and disparities,” said Trautwein, adding that he has several clients who have faced those challenges after deploying workflow software.
“Workflow is being more and more built into the core system, which can do the transaction and then push it to the different hands that need it,” said Trautwein, who said his experience includes leading enterprise technology change projects as a senior manager with Muzak and BankAtlantic.
Core processors Jack Henry's Symitar and Fiserv's Open Solutions have pushed that functionality envelope further by creating app stores that offer an array of reporting and processing extenders. The core processors themselves offer up tools and allow their clients to do the same.
Likewise, Jack Henry itself has just rolled out what it calls jhaEnterprise Workflow. The Monett, Mo.-based firm said the solution streamlines and standardizes financial institution-defined business processes and even threw a bone to that omnipresent target of executive ire: the regulatory burden.
“jhaEnterprise Workflow automatically routes assignments based on established credentials, permission levels and staff availability while enforcing established approval processes,” the July 15 announcement said.
“Automated workflow supports immediate updates to business processes, which expedites the ability for financial institutions to respond to evolving regulatory requirements,” according to Jack Henry.