Opting for open-source
UAE Exchange standardises its fast-growing distributed systems on Red Hat Enterprise Linux using the Red Hat Satellite management platform.
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UAE Exchange is, by a number of measures, the largest money transfer and foreign exchange company in the region. Founded in 1980 with a single branch in Abu Dhabi, the firm now has over 700 direct offices spread across 30 countries on five continents. With such reach, UAE Exchange claims to support over six million customers worldwide, and it has relationships with over 150 global banks. The company says that it is its “people-friendly” approach to business that makes it attractive to so many customers.
Indeed, as UAE Exchange has grown, so too has the scope of its business. Its stated goal now is to become a complete financial supermarket. As such, in recent years, the company has broadened its horizons beyond global remittances and foreign currency exchange. Now, UAE Exchange offers products such as payments for credit cards, utility bills, subscriptions and airline services. It has even branched out to offer wealth management services and loyalty programmes.
Naturally, this fast-paced business dynamic demands a robust and agile IT department. Happily, UAE Exchange is host to one of the most innovative IT teams in the business, and as such, most of its new business practices have been driven by technological advancements. For example, the company has launched an online remittance service called money2anywhere.com, which makes secure transactions through a customer-facing website.
Another web-based service, smartpaysolutions.com, is a unique payroll processing and salary disbursement platform. There are a number of other services that UAE Exchange has rolled out in recent years, and they were all developed in-house, and are hosted at two of the company’s data centres in the UAE, along with the back-office systems of UAE Exchange’s ever-growing number of branches dotted around the world.
However, as UAE Exchange began rolling out these new services, as well as embarking on aggressive expansion, the company realised that its distributed IT infrastructure was struggling to keep up. As a result, UAE Exchange needed to rethink how to accommodate dozens of new branches, as well as ensure high availability for more than 90,000 simultaneous users — that is, customers on the company’s web-based portals.
Previously, UAE Exchange had always relied on its traditional IT infrastructure when adding new services in line with market needs. However, rapid expansion caused these systems to be distributed. Instead of a centralised infrastructure, UAE Exchange found that it was struggling with servers running various versions of NCR UNIX and Solaris, as it attempted to alleviate the performance and availability concerns brought about by rapid growth.
What’s more, as it diversified its business with new service offerings, UAE Exchange began a programme of continuously deploying new Java and Enterprise JavaBean applications at lightning pace. Within its diverse computing environment, however, scaling these applications was proving to be a formidable challenge.
“Running a 24-7 operation that serves customers across different time zones required a platform that can perform consistently and reliably. Our applications are all web-based, and as the majority of these mission-critical applications are customer-facing, there is no room for performance gaps or downtime,” says Sarath Chandra, global CIO at UAE Exchange.
“Technically we were working with high-risk problems. One was the highly distributed systems, all the satellites. The other one was the scalability of these new applications that had been freshly done. It was a typical set of problems — scalability and high availability.”
As such, according to Chandra, the company needed to find a better way of managing its disparate systems, not only to make it easier to deploy new services and branches, but also to keep a handle on the existing ones that were under strain.
“It was fast becoming clear that, if we hoped to maintain our exceptional level of service and our reputation as a technology-driven business, we would need to standardise our systems on a platform that could offer flexibility for innovation while guaranteeing performance, availability and scalability,” he says.
Opting for open-source
Because UAE Exchange was home to a large development team, the company’s IT department was already well up to speed on a number of different technologies, including open-source ones. According to Chandra, the company was working with NCR UNIX, Sun Solaris, Microsoft Windows and even SUSE Linux across its range of servers. This, Chandra says, allowed the IT team to decide on the best course of when it came to unifying everything under a single, simpler platform.
“The hands-on experience they gained working with these disparate systems gave them a keen understanding of the shortcomings of each,” he says.
Thanks to its dealings within and outside the open-source community, UAE Exchange was made aware by Red Hat, which creates open source-based platforms for various environments. Chandra says that he had already been impressed by the scope of the developer community behind Red Hat, and so UAE Exchange brought in Red Hat Consulting, the consultative arm of the vendor, to evaluate how the company might standardise its systems going forward.