Banking on future storage

Qatar First Bank has updated its storage infrastructure to EMC VNX unified storage arrays, to support an expanded business focus and extended operations, and to enable the ongoing adoption of advanced technologies now and in future.

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Banking on future storage Mahmood Shaker, CIO of Qatar First Bank, which has completed an upgrade of its EMC storage solutions to support growth. (ITP Images)
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By  Mark Sutton Published  July 2, 2014

Qatar First Bank has updated its storage infrastructure to EMC VNX unified storage arrays, to support an expanded business focus and extended operations, and to enable the ongoing adoption of advanced technologies now and in future.

With any sort of information technology system, there is always underlying data, and associated with that data, is the need to be able to store and recover that data properly. No matter how good the systems, if the storage is not matched to the task, then IT processes will struggle to meet the business requirements.

This was the situation that faced Qatar First Investment Bank, the first independent Shari’ah compliant financial institution licensed by the Qatar Financial Centre Authority (QFCA). The bank was established in 2009 and by 2011, the bank posted net profits of $28 million from investments. Following this success, the bank decided to expand its operations, and move from purely investment banking activities, to offer the full range of Islamic banking services, focusing on high net worth individuals, and to rebrand as Qatar First Bank.

Mahmood Shaker, CIO, Qatar First Bank explains: “When we started the bank it was a small private equity bank. We only had 40 employees. The business focus was limited to just one line of business; but from the growth and the success of the investment operation, we rebranded the bank, and now we have become a full-fledged bank offering private, corporate and investment products & services”

While expanding into other areas of banking meant adding staff, getting regulatory approvals for new products, and adding facilities such as the bank’s first branch, due to be operational by the end of this year, it also meant an overhead for the IT department — namely in new systems and the underlying storage requirements. The company’s initial IT setup had been perfectly adequate to manage the operations since launch, but in order to expand; new applications would have to be added to support the operations.

“When you move to such a line of business, you need to have proper core banking, CRM, credit card, clearing systems and a call centre — none of those were there,” says Shaker. “When you adopt all these technologies, the number of staff more than doubled, and a branch is to be established, then there is more pressure on the storage. All these applications need the data stored somewhere. When you become a full-fledged bank you need to have a DR site, with replication, to store the data elsewhere.”

The bank has been using EMC solutions since its inception, and while QFB had no problems with the current systems, their capacity requirements had outstripped them, warranties had expired, and storage technology had moved on. Shaker gives the example of email — the bank had increased to over 100 users, and shifted to Exchange 2013, which meant email was stored both at the desktop and on the backup database, more than doubling the storage requirements.

With the aim of putting in new systems that would support aggressive growth plans, QFB’s requirement was for a storage system that would be able to fully support developments in technology, such as cloud and virtualisation. The bank has also adopted best practices including COBIT and ITIL, and wanted to design a new storage architecture that would meet best practices for future requirements.

QFB launched a competitive bidding process for the new storage requirements, which assessed solutions from a number of vendors, but the bank decided to stay with EMC, in part because its solutions offered the best fit and scalability, and also because of the vendor’s investment in R&D and product development, focus on verticals and business needs, and the speed to deploy technology.

“Entering into the banking sector and with my long term experience with EMC and its products, we are confident that our IT will successfully support the new transition.  As the head of IT, I keep a keen eye out for any issues or problems that we might face because of our technology decisions. I’m happy to say that with EMC we have not faced any downsides and they have certainly raised the bar with their outstanding technology delivery,” Shaker said.

The bank selected EMC’s VNX unified storage array to meet its storage requirements. The system is supporting data from a range of applications, including Oracle, VMware and Microsoft solutions, with around 600TB of data stored at the branch across three arrays.

A primary requirement of the new storage infrastructure was to be able to implement proper disaster recovery systems, in line with regulatory requirements and best practice. The bank established a data recovery site at telecom operator Ooredoo’s Qatar Data Centre. The DR systems include EMC RecoverPoint appliance-based data protection solution, which enables continuous data protection (CDP) and continuous remote replication (CRR) solutions that allow for any-point-in-time data recovery. The system gives QFB a flexible and resilient DR solution that enables performance enhancements such as replicating different data sources in less than 30 minutes, compared to between eight to twelve hours with the previous set up.

An important aspect of the VNX solution was its support for virtualised environments. QFB has around 70% virtualisation at its main site, and 80% at the DR site, all based on Microsoft’s Hyper-V.

“Two years ago, we took the lead by moving to a private cloud environment and we needed a solid product that would fit. The feedback from the team managing the systems and the network was that they could benefit from the fact that VNX worked well across Hyper-V, Exchange environments, delivering dramatic change in application speeds. We use many applications starting from core banking, to Microsoft CRM, HR Systems, SharePoint, and Oracle, and performance benefits were evident” Shaker says.

Another benefit of the system is the reduced management requirement. The solution includes the EMC Unisphere management application which controls all the EMC infrastructure, and automates key functions, which in turn has allowed QFB to cut the number of staff managing the storage from four to two.

QFIB has also seen 20% savings on storage CapEx because data across systems can now be moved over fibre channel in seconds. “We are now able to just plug and play,” Shaker says. CapEx savings result from increased EMC infrastructure flexibility and agility, allowing the Bank to maximize storage utilization and curtail spending on the purchase of additional storage systems.

Going forward, the new storage systems provide a stable base for other projects, including moving 100% to the cloud, and also harnessing big data. By putting in place industry standard, scalable solutions, Shaker says that the Bank is well positioned to adopt these new technologies: “We have started thinking about Big Data, we don’t want to have to change our storage, we want stability and growth, so we have looked for a proper configuration for the long run.”

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