EBI reveals plans to become banking ASP

Emirates Bank International was the first Middle East institution to offer online banking. Now it wants to share its expertise and applications with other regional banks, says Mohammed Al Jallaf.

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By  Rob Corder Published  January 3, 2001

While most of the region’s financial services community are still experimenting with Internet banking services, Emirates Bank International (EBI) is setting its sights higher.

EBI began offering online services to its retail and corporate customers as early as 1997, however, now the bank’s e-business strategy is stretching further afield, offering services not traditionally associated with financial institutions, to a whole new client base.

EBI is planning to evolve into a technology service provider to the region’s other banks, many of which cannot afford either the expertise or the technology associated with offering e-banking solutions.

EBI intends to make its own technology platform and systems expertise readily available to other regional banks in the form of ASP partnerships. “As opposed to being isolated and having a system only for Emirates Bank and the Emirates Bank Group, let’s open it up and use this experience, and provide these services to other banks,” says Mohammed Al Jallaf, senior manager, electronic banking services, EBI. “We’re looking to become a type of ASP,” to the region’s banking community.

EBI is currently in the midst of overhauling its own Internet infrastructure to create a platform, which it can then make services available to other financial institutions.

In August 2000, EBI signed a deal with middleware vendor Brokat, to totally revamp its Web platform. “In the middle of 1999 we considered changing the platform to make its capabilities last for the next five years,” explains Al Jallaf.

The resulting solution, of Sun Microsystems hardware, Oracle database and Brokat’s e-banking platform Twister, replaced the NT/SQL server and Compaq solution that EBI had been operating since 1997. “It’s not that the NT platform was shaky, far from it… it worked perfectly for us, but we decided that we had to change our strategy.”

The resulting service provider strategy demanded a platform that could be easily integrated with the backend systems of other banks. After an extensive search and testing EBI settled on Twister, which enables the bank to access the necessary mainframe data of potential banking partners.

EBI’s common platform will enable it to act as a ‘switch’ connecting a bank’s backend system to the online customer, comments Al Jallaf. “We’re going to be laying all those services from other banks over the top of the platform and connecting to the bank’s mainframes in the background. When each bank’s customer enters he sees the look and feel of their home bank,” he adds.

EBI still has to fill in many of the blanks if it is to deliver an e-banking ASP service. Initially, it has to complete the transition of its own e-banking platform to Brokat, a process that isn’t scheduled for completion until the first quarter of this year.

As part of that project, EBI has to migrate three years worth of customer data from the SQL database to the Oracle RDBMS, a process which Al Jallaf describes as tricky as translating Chinese to Nigerian. But the project team has completed the data migration element of the project, mapping the data field between both platforms. “It’s very important to ensure that we get the data migration process right,” says Al Jallaf. Particularly when a customer or a corporate has multiple dealings with the bank and multiple account signatories.

Other project work ongoing at EBI as the financial institution shifts to an ‘always on’ Internet infrastructure include plans for a data warehouse. The creation of a central data repository will enable the bank to effectively share information across its multiple divisions, says Al Jallaf.

EBI’s ASP proposal will also save local banks investing in people to put together sophisticated e-banking solutions. EBI has found the recruitment drive to put together its own e-banking team “difficult,” admits Al Jallaf.

The company has outsourced much of the Java development work of the ongoing Brokat project to third parties, as opposed to search out the necessary skills.

With project plans still very much in the transitional stage, the bank is already investigating the possibilities of forming several partnerships to support its platform across the region. System integrators will be vital to do the necessary nitty-gritty work of connecting partner banks to the Brokat platform. Says Al Jallaf, EBI is already in discussions with a number of the region’s banks and IT companies about the delivery of services. “We’ve shown [potential] customers a model of the service and they are interested,” says Al Jallaf. “We’re looking to add IT companies into the service to look after the banks and the services that they’re offering.”

However, EBI is going to have to overcome a degree of hesitancy on the part of the local banking community, to initially allow the backend integration and then share the information generated by Internet traffic. But according to Al Jallaf, this shouldn’t be a problem as the potential benefits to all parties concerned make the service worthwhile. “It will be of mutual benefit to all banks involved,” says Al Jallaf.

The service is “more about building a common platform between the banks in the region to facilitate services. It’s more about building a relationship between the banks than competing with the other guys,” explains Al Jallaf.

For many of the smaller banks, EBI’s strategy makes a certain amount of sense, many of which still have to fully embrace e-banking. As mentioned in ACN15/10, many of the richer banks that have gone online already haven’t really done so with the idea of capturing many new customers. Rather, they see the Internet — in the short term anyway— as a method of retaining customers as opposed to acquiring customers.

The expenditure many of them are setting aside for the Internet is seen basically as an investment in the necessary skills and experience prior to e-banking really taking off in the long term.

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