Martin Hargreaves leads the technology team for VocaLink, which "runs the rails" that move payments between the banks in the United Kingdom and the LINK ATM Network, among other financial services.
These include 90 per cent of salaries, more than 70 per cent of household bills and almost all state benefits.
"Across these services, we do about 10 billion transactions a year, with a value of £5 trillion," says Hargreaves, who is the technology lead, strategy and business development, at VocaLink.
VocaLink is also moving fast into servicing offshore customers. Singapore has gone live with the FAST system using its software, which allows electronic transfer of funds between accounts in seconds, instead of the usual two to three days. This year, it formed a separate company: Zapp, a mobile payment service for banks and retailers.
VocaLink is owned by a consortium of 18 banks and building societies, including Barclays Bank, Royal Bank of Scotland group, Lloyds Banking Group, HSBC and Santander. "Our customers are also our shareholders. It's an interesting situation to be in," says Hargreaves at the recent EMC Redefine Possible event in London.
"We are a separate commercial entity and we've been in the process over the past few years of becoming more commercial.
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"Basically our permission to go and do other things is only predicated on the fact that we do a really good job in the UK."
Banks connect to their systems over a private network, Hargreaves says. "Their systems talk to our systems. We have customer support teams that support our banks, and they have a variety of Web-based interfaces for those to talk to us. We're kind of like a SaaS [software as a service] provider really."
In this environment, reliability and availability are important. So in 2007, VocaLink moved its "ageing" storage system into the "tier one space" with EMC. In 2010, VocaLink moved its main payment systems over to EMC VMAX.
"We wanted an array that we could put in and we could run for 10 years and then we could replace with a new one. And for most of the vendors, [they were] sort of three to five years support, and then we need to take you to the next version," Hargreaves says.
"For the sorts of applications we're doing, we don't need that level of intrusive change into the services," he explains. "As we move forward, any kind of downtime gets less and less acceptable, so that was designed as an active system that is live during maintenance; never ever goes down, but on an open systems platform.
"It's basically, the differentiator for us; we have no downtime on it ever and we very rarely need to touch it. So in terms of service stability, it's the underlying core that we rest everything else on," he says. "It's not one of the really exciting things that we do, but it needs to be really, really dependable.
"A lot of our credibility as a supplier is the fact that we can build and operate very large file systems at 100 per cent availability. It's a pedigree that almost no one else has," he says in response to startups foraying into the financial sector.
His advice for young IT professionals?
"Keep an eye on the front runners. Stay ahead of the curve as much as possible, but then translate that back into what has business benefit for your business, rather than being overly excited about the technology.
"Working out what's appropriate and what's not appropriate for your company, as opposed to what all of the vendors and all of the industry are saying, is a learned skill," he says. "As a young IT professional, expect to get burned by that a couple of times and be willing to learn from it."
Divina Paredes attended the Redefine Possible event in London as a guest of EMC.
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