Lebanon's Bank of Beirut reveals how it conquered the challenge of balancing its IT budget between maintenance and new projects.
Running the infrastructure of one of the Middle East's leading banks is far from an easy job. It is absolutely crucial to strike a healthy balance between implementing the latest developments in information technology and maintaining your current infrastructure.
But when you are on a tight budget, how do you decide on the best way to split spending between these two important areas?
We have 45 sites across Oman, Cyprus and the UK, and we have other branches abroad that are connected through VPN.
For the Bank of Beirut IT team, this decision turned out to be exceedingly simple - split it 50/50. This has the benefit of providing considerable funds for system health and maintenance issues, while still leaving plenty over for more advanced projects such as virtualisation.
IT manager Najib Ghanem, offers a helpful glimpse at the scope of the organisation's IT infrastructure, and the hardware and software he employs to manage the bank across its various sites around the globe.
"We have 45 sites across Oman, Cyprus, and the UK, and we have other branches abroad that are connected through VPN. The branches in Lebanon are connected through communication frame relay, that means we have leased line connectivity. We have a data centre in Oman that was used as a disaster recovery site but we use it as the primary site now," says Ghanem.
"The centres are linked through a VPN and we have a transfer of data between both. The data centre in Lebanon is used to serve the Lebanese branches and is acting as a data centre for Cyprus. The centre is hosting the internet and the exchange for all the branches. Oman has its own data centre but the email and exchange is centred in Lebanon," adds Ghanem.
Such a large undertaking requires reliable infrastructure and appropriate supporting software, especially when it comes to international banks - where the collapse of a network affects thousands of people worldwide.
The bank selected software vendor CA to provide the majority of its products. The company has become its major pillar of support when it comes to maintenance of its systems.
Ghanem says he was familiar with CA's products, and knowing what kind of quality of service it provides gave them a good chance of being selected for use by the bank.
The Bank of Beirut began implementing CA products in 2001, starting with antivirus and Unicentre, and has continued to rely heavily on the company throughout the new millennium. It currently uses around 10 CA products ranging from mail and web filtering to service desk. Ghanem says choosing a company to provide these services were a relatively easy decision to make.
"We compared CA to a number of other available products and we picked up CA. I know the product. I know the type of service it supports, and the quality of service it has, from previous experience with their other products," says Ghanem.
The bank has persisted with its usual cautious approach for implementing new products and solutions, and has begun a gradual implementation plan for the majority of the CA products it has acquired. "We have installed the service desk and we are testing E-health now. We still rely on the old network management called NSM which is currently installed and in use, but E-health has much more functionality than NSM, so we are testing it now along with the mail archiver," Ghanem says.
When it comes to hardware, the bank also uses a variety of different products and equipment to maintain its two main data centres, and various remote sites.
The hardware selected must be reliable, as the relatively small team of 30 IT staff is unable to provide personal support at remote locations. Ghanem says the bank is looking towards blade servers and virtualisation as another way of improving efficiency.
"We have acquired the 2-storey area networks from HP. And we have installed blade servers from HP again. We have one blade for eight servers. Gradually we will be migrating all our servers to blades. It will happen by the end of June 2009," says Ghanem.
While constantly upgrading and maintaining its current infrastructure, the bank's IT team always remains focused on the future, which is a wise move in an industry that is constantly looking ahead to new technologies.
Ghanem says the company will begin to slowly implement virtualisation technology, however he says some things will still have to be done the old fashioned way.
"We will start to virtualise about four servers. We don't have very accurate calculations on how many servers we can virtualise because it depends on the volume and on the speed. We can never do it completely but we will do as much as we can. Some servers cannot be virtualised."
The bank plans to virtualise around half its servers by the end of next year, with the goal of improving efficiency by reducing space and power consumption, with added bonuses such as ease of management and disaster recovery.
The slowly-but-surely approach employed by the bank when it comes to virtualisation and migration to blade servers may be slow going, but it is a wise way to proceed with innovative new projects.
This way, managers can keep a close eye on the progress of the changes and prevent things from going wrong in the event of an IT failure or issue.
In spite of the expansive network of IT infrastructure that is required by the Bank of Beirut, Najib Ghanem says the process of deciding budgets for new projects and server upgrades and maintenance is decided relatively smoothly.
"We submit our plan to management at the end of each year. We then submit our budget and our business requirements before they approve the plans," he explains.
It may sound too simple, but often simplicity can prove to be the best option, even for a complex and large scale operation such as an international bank.
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