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Banking Software Technology Past, Present & Future



Since the first faltering steps away from hard-wired logic, the methods and tools available to the software industry for producing applications have progressed considerably.

This progress can be charted through a number of distinct generations of software technology, each with demonstrable benefits over its parent in terms of productivity and the reliability, and flexibility of the resulting applications.

The first move away from hard-wiring came about through the desire to lower the cost of adapting the hardware to differing requirements. The latest software technology available today is a continuation of that fundamental mission embarked upon all those years ago.

Procedure Oriented / Flat Files : The 3rd Generation

Since the computer hardware itself works by executing a list of instructions, it was natural that the first generation of application software should mimic this. The applications of this generation consist of lists of instructions – procedures – each representing a business process (for example add new account, modify exchange rate). The data is stored in files which originally mirrored the existing manually kept data, and whose records are read and updated at the appropriate points in the application procedures.

Much effort was expended by computer manufacturers in providing tools to increase the efficiency with which such applications could be produced. The result is the selection of high level language compilers available – the so called 3rd generation such as Cobol and C.

As a rule, and banks were no exception, the technology was embraced as a way of reducing costs and increasing efficiency, by those institutions with sufficient volumes of transactions and data to justify its implementation and the tremendous cost of the hardware.

The cost of the development of applications was high. Analysts and programmers were required to implement even the smallest changes and produce the simplest of reports.

As the pace of change in the banking sector picked up along with the thirst for information, IT quickly established itself as a major cost item in the banks’ statements of profit and loss. Many millions were invested in IT to meet the challenges, and applications grew to encompass millions of lines of code.

A lack of standards meant that compilers and consequently applications, were written specifically for particular computers, and millions had to be spent again by those unfortunate enough to back the wrong hardware technology, either on re-writes or conversion.
As the complexity of the applications grew rapidly, the shortcomings of their design became all too apparent. Spending on maintenance (fixing bugs) outstripped that of new developments. This positively hindered the development of the systems necessary to support new areas of business, for example securities and later derivatives, all in a climate of increased competition among banks, where IT had become a vital tool in the race to establish business advantage.

In summary, the shortcomings of this generation of application software are :-

lack of flexibility;
costs of maintenance;
time taken to bring new products to market;
lack of platform independence.

The amount invested in this generation of legacy applications is evidenced by their continued widespread use within the banking sector today. The shortage of Cobol programmers registered in the run up to the new millennium proved a revealing statistic.

Legacy Systems : The Middleware Solution

The re-development of legacy applications, whilst ultimately and indisputably desirable, is hindered by the conflict of resources brought about by the need to concurrently address the requirements of new areas of business.

The middle way adopted by many institutions has been to strategically purchase or develop new applications using new software methods and technology and to spend money tactically on ‘middleware’ to integrate them with legacy systems. The downside of this approach, exacerbated by the introduction of different legacy systems inherited through corporate acquisition, has been the arbitrary spread of data across different platforms making it difficult to gain a timely, consolidated and consistent view of the bank’s data.

The areas which have been impeded the most by this are clearly those which most require such broad and immediate access to operational data. Risk management, private banking, cost and profitability analysis, accounting – not to mention the general efficiencies of coordinated STP workflow between departments. The middleware approach brings with it considerable additional overheads of interface and data management, and significantly increases the cost of incorporating changes which span vertical applications and of systems operations and testing. The more systems that are added to accommodate change, the more the overall system (the sum of all of the systems) tends to resist change.


Relational Databases : Towards the 4th Generation

The next significant development in software technology was that of the relational database. Instead of disparate files of often duplicated information whose content and relationships were known only to the programmer, an organisation’s data requirements could be analysed, and expressed as an entity relationship diagram.

Each entity represents the data associated with a component of the business processes such as a client record or an account. Each has attributes to describe it and its relationships with the other entities of the data model.

The description of the entities’ attributes and relationships are stored in a data dictionary. The clear advantage over the flat file approach being that the meaning and significance of the data are stored in the database with the data as opposed to being buried in the source code written and understood exclusively by programmers. The benefit of this is that the data can be accessed, understood, analysed and reported on independently of the application software using standard tools such as SQL. Properly implemented, it also greatly simplifies data maintenance by guaranteeing, for example, that if a client’s address is changed, by virtue of the fact that it only exists in one place, it does not need to be changed anywhere else. Of course these benefits are limited by the scope of the applications serviced by the single database. However at the time of their introduction they represented a major milestone on the journey between the earlier trend of designing applications to be computer centric and the current one of designing them to be business centric.

The realisation of the possibilities they offered of a consolidated bank-wide database updated in real time and covering all products and services led many in banking IT to set off in search of the so called ‘holy grail’. This was the mythical package that could process all products and services and maintain a relational database to supply all of the information requirements of the bank.

The RDBMS methodology solved the consolidated data access issues so far as the scope of its implementation allowed, but apart from some data maintenance and reliability advantages, it did not offer any significant benefits in terms of the flexibility and time taken to introduce support for new products and services.

4th Generation Languages

Efforts to resolve these issues focussed on yet more powerful methods of producing procedural applications known as 4th generation programming languages. The more sophisticated of these incorporate complete analysis and design methodologies, the automatic production of relational data models, and the linking of the generated applications to the resulting database. The tools are now largely provided by specialised software vendors rather than by the computer manufacturers and so do overcome to a certain extent the issue of platform independence. The same issue remains today, but has now been distilled to a small number of hardware and operating system suppliers or their tactical alliances.

Towards The Future

While the 4GL tools clearly enable rapid development of applications, the flexibility of the applications themselves is limited by their design to the extent that the introduction of new products and services, or of any other changes, requires a return to the source code, changes to the data model and re-generation of the application. This is the same cycle of development as the previous generation, but more efficient.

However efficient they are or become, the 4GL tools cannot compete with an application which is itself able to accommodate change without the need for re-generation or for changes to the data model. Such applications would provide functions to add new functions in the same way as they provide functions to add new accounts, and with the same immediacy.

Introduced in response to a new requirement, or to replace a legacy system for which maintenance is no longer possible or economical, such applications offer the real possibility of starting to reduce the number of systems and interfaces within an enterprise by enabling the incorporation of new products and services or further legacy systems, without the cost of redesigning and re-building.

This could break the current cycle of application development which banks seem to be in where there is a real danger that each application added, is another straw on the camel’s back of the bank’s overall system strategy and at the least another multiplier of the cost of implementing future changes.

Parameterised and Rules Based Systems : The First Steps

Parameterised and rules based systems represent the first steps towards building the flexible applications described above whereby flexibility is built into the applications rather than derived from the tools with which they are built. Parameterised and rules based systems are at first glance easy to confuse with one another. Since there are a number of such systems on the market, it is worth spending a little time to understand the difference.

Parameterised systems are ones in which the path taken by an application module through a set of procedural instructions depends upon the setting of some variables. These ‘flags’ are included in the static data records of the application and can be set relatively easily without the need for expensive and time consuming changes to software.

The existence of parameterised systems stems largely from the requirement of software houses to be able to sell their packages in different countries and market segments without themselves incurring the costs of producing and maintaining different versions.

They are implemented via ‘if’ statements in the application programs conditioned on variables within the static data tables. An example might be if <tax_flag> then <calculate_tax>.

The ease of use of parameters has been extended to provide a modicum of control of such packages to the bank without the need to revert to the software house. This typically includes parameters attached to product files to allow the bank to choose the characteristics of its products, for example fixed rate versus floating rate, and can go as far as allowing the definition of new product types by selecting a number of such parameters.

The first major restriction of these systems is that the parameters merely select one of a number of predefined paths through the software. Any usage not thought of by the program’s designers is therefore not achievable by any combination of parameters. In other words, in the above example, both the flag ‘tax-flag’ and the procedure ‘calculate tax’ must already exist within the application. The addition of new flags or procedures requires an expensive re-design and re-build of the package.

The second major limitation is that the data stored in such systems is equally limited to that foreseen by the applications’ designers. In an attempt to overcome this, many such packages include some additional ‘spare’ data elements which can be used to accommodate unforeseen data. Use those up, however, and you are in the same boat of having to go back and re-design the system.

Rules based systems overcome the first limitation of parameterised systems by breaking procedures down into smaller elements called rules. Facilities are provided within the applications for combining the rules in different ways to create new procedures. Provided sufficient of these smaller elements are provided by the applications designers are foreseen, the result is far greater flexibility than that delivered by simpler parameterised systems.

Rules based systems alone however still do not overcome the second limitation. That is to say that the introduction of new data attributes and new tables still requires a re-design of the application and a re-build.


Object Oriented Systems : Getting There

The next piece in the puzzle is provided by object oriented technology. It does for procedural computer centric programs what relational databases did for flat files.

Business objects are described both in terms of their data (attributes) and the procedures required to process them. An example might be an object called client which has attributes of name, address and domicile and with functions to fetch and update client records. These functions have a well defined programming interface which enables them to be called in a consistent manner by any other program without the need for the other program to be compiled with it.

Any changes to the object client, either data or procedural, are contained within that object, hence considerably reducing the maintenance overheads of introducing changes.

Time to create applications is also reduced partly because of the ability for an object to be defined in terms of another already existing one (inheritance). The standardised nature of the objects’ interfaces means that it is also possible to purchase objects from 3rd party sources and use them within new applications.

OO applications lend themselves particularly well to the presentation of applications via graphical user interfaces, since each object can be represented as an individual icon.

Builders of OO applications are still faced with providing a model to which to attach their objects. In addition , new objects required must be generated or built using 3rd or 4th generation techniques. These factors combine to leave OO applications better placed than others, but still short of the flexible applications required to have a significant impact on the current situation, of the type described earlier in this article.

Today

The best applications combine the best of relational database, rules based and OO technology. The generated applications deliver a set of object classes to the application environment and provide facilities for the online creation of new object types in terms of the supplied classes.

The result is applications where both processes and data model are defined by ‘rules’ providing solutions of unparalleled flexibility which welcome, rather than obstruct change. If your IT department or supplier is not thinking along these lines then perhaps it’s time to look again, because these applications are available now.

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