Appliance Pays Big Dividends for Online Banking App

When the SSFCU's online banking application became increasingly slow and at times unavailable, the credit union decided to boost performance and scalability with a load-balancing solution--the NetScaler 9000 appliance.

March 25, 2005

9 Min Read
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SSFCU, the 10th largest credit union in the nation, was founded in 1956 to serve the U.S. Air Force Security Service Command. Today it has more than 550,000 military and nonmilitary members, 70,000 of whom are active users--from around the country and overseas--of the CompuBranch online banking service. The credit union has nearly doubled in size over the past few years, from about $1.8 billion in assets in 1999 to more than $3.5 billion today, and its online banking application has grown along with the organization.

As it evaluated alternatives for handling the increasing traffic load, SSFCU's IT group decided against re-architecting the organization's servers and software, a costly and complicated process that likely would have been a short-term fix and would have required some modifications to the banking application architecture. Rewriting the app--which SSFCU declined to name--wasn't realistic, and adding more server iron wasn't the answer either. "Any server re-architecture would have just been incremental and expensive," says Joseph Winslow, senior vice president and CIO at SSFCU.

Instead, the credit union chose an appliance-based load-balancing solution with compression, the NetScaler 9800, which it installed late last fall. As part of the solution, SSFCU also bought another pair of Windows-based Web and application servers so the appliances could distribute the load. The key was ensuring that the banking application could grow with its user base."We went from having one Web and one app server to two of each," Renaud says. The credit union bought the NetScaler devices for about $100,000 (see "The Hard Sell," page 65).

The combination of the NetScaler 9800 and the new servers helped to more than double the capacity of online banking users SSFCU could support, which helped ensure its customers could access the application to do their banking. To date, SSFCU now can support about 450 concurrent users accessing the service with no performance hit. The new solution, Renaud says, lets SSFCU scale the app and process its customers' transactions more efficiently.

SSFCU runs the NetScaler appliance's compression feature for some traffic, and plans to eventually use the function across all its online services. But SSFCU doesn't use the 9800's caching feature, which speeds up response time by caching frequently accessed pages. Caching didn't make sense for SSFCU's online banking because much of the data would be an individual customer's personal financial data, which would be accessible only to that user. Instead, SSFCU relies on the appliance's load-balancing feature to divvy up traffic among its servers to support the additional user load.

New Job DescriptionLater this year, the credit union plans to take advantage of the 9800's SSL feature to create an SSL VPN for its employees. The VPN will be used primarily by IT, but it will also provide remote access for some home office users who need to connect to the credit union's network. SSL VPNs are becoming more popular because they don't require a separate client VPN package, as IPsec VPNs do. "We're excited about clientless support, instead of having to run a client on all PCs," Renaud says.

And SSFCU is already preparing for the next generation of its online banking system. The credit union has chosen a new application built for larger organizations, Corillian Corp.'s Corillian Consumer Banking package.

It's unclear just when the credit union will deploy the new app, which includes advanced online payment, transfer and single sign-on. But it will mean an expanded role for the SSFCU's NetScaler appliances. Aside from their load-balancing job, the 9800s will support the credit union's plans for building a unified portal with online banking, BillPay and other Web services.

"We can use the NetScaler box for online banking or portal Web site, or internal or external Web-based apps," Renaud says. "It provides an opportunity for us to consolidate and scale our online channel onto less equipment."

Tell us about your network, and we may profile it in a future issue. Send e-mail to [email protected] or call (516) 562-5914Todd RenaudTodd Renaud, 34, is assistant vice president of integrated solutions at San Antonio-based Security Service Federal Credit Union, where he has worked for nearly three years. He's been in IT his entire career, starting as a kid programming his Atari 400 and Tandy TRS-80.

Biggest annoyance with online banking applications: "Many companies view them as an expense instead of an investment. It's a cost of doing business, but it can be a worthwhile cost if approached properly."

Why network appliances get a bad rap: "People think something so easy can't be beneficial or work well."

Claim to fame: "I used to work in Enron's IT department. I'm not going to jail, but I know some who did go. I learned a lot about technology, business and life at Enron, and I'd prefer not to learn these [lessons] again: Cash is king; there is no right way to do a wrong; and revenue must be greater than expenses over time."

When I bank online: "I'm one of those people who likes to check on my money this way, and I also do some transferring between accounts. I have many transfers set automatically, but I also use CompuBranch [an online banking service] on a regular basis for one-off transfers to family members."Life imitates IT: "The street in any city is just like IT-- everyone goes too fast, is talking on the phone and still ends up at the same stoplight."

If you were stranded on an island, would you rather be stuck with Bill Gates, Steve Jobs or Larry Ellison? "None of the above. I'm afraid no one would come looking for them, so my chances would be better if it were just me."

Even Grandma can bank online: "I no longer believe people can't figure it out, so everyone should use it, as long as they're nice when they call us for technical support."

Favorite team: I am a huge auto-racing fan, so I would go for NASCAR great Tony Stewart. And for more traditional sports, my alma mater's team, the Texas A&M Aggies.

Wheels: "1995 Chevy Tahoe, because it's paid for. On weekends, though, I have a 1967 GT Fastback Mustang to play with."After hours: "Competition skeet and sporting clays. There is something very therapeutic about it."

Dream job: "A professional race car driver."

SSFCU Pumps Up Volume for Online Banking

When joseph Winslow of Security Service Federal Credit Union asked upper management to sign off on buying the NetScaler 9800 appliance last fall, the idea was to nip in the bud a potentially big problem. Some of the credit union's customers were either getting elbowed off the online banking application or suffering slow response times. There was little or no room for new users to join the increasingly popular app.

"We had the foresight to say that this isn't crashing today, but we need to do something to shore it up," says Winslow, SSFCU's senior vice president and CIO. "The response-time problem wasn't acute, but we wanted to head that off."Winslow didn't spend too much time explaining the technical details of his proposed solution to execs. Instead, he drove home the business challenge: Poor online banking performance would be bad for the credit union's members--and, ultimately, for business.

"We are nearing capacity on a very important channel that we expect to grow in the future," Winslow recalls of his pitch to SSFCU executives. "If we want to add more members, we need to make an investment in this."

The project got the green light. "It was an easy sell," Winslow says. The credit union wanted to keep members happy, and didn't want to limit the online service's growth potential. But the solution had to be inexpensive, as well as fast and easy to deploy.

"Once Jay presented the solution, the company was confident that we had run all the traps and done the proper evaluation," says Todd Renaud, SSFCU's assistant vice president of integrated solutions, who had headed up testing of the 9800 appliance.

Although there was no set budget for the buy, Winslow had to plan around $100,000 for the project. But he didn't provide an ROI justification for the application performance project. Instead, he says, "I put the ROI against a prima facie argument--it's not a matter of 'if we do this, we'll sell additional products,' but that this addresses a specific pain point."Popularity Has its Price

Although Security Service Federal Credit Union didn't hit any major roadblocks in implementing the NetScaler 9800 appliance, the credit union did learn a thing or two about configuring it to work on the firm's Gigabit and 10/100-Mbps Ethernet LAN. SSFCU was able to iron out the kinks during testing before going live with the product last fall.

First, SSFCU had to make some basic routing changes on the network so the appliance could "see" the incoming traffic, because the online banking application was now sitting behind the firewall and the appliance was in the DMZ. The IP addresses of the two Windows-based Web servers had to appear as one IP address to the 9800.

"If you are going to the online banking URL, you now go through NetScaler first instead of the internal network, so [the 9800] needed to know where to point the traffic," says Todd Renaud, SSFCU's assistant vice president of integrated solutions. "But that wasn't a problem to configure."

Second, SSFCU wanted to create a test bed that simulated real traffic and usage demands, so setting up the test bed took longer than usual. The team tried to mimic everything in the live environment, down to the networking devices."We didn't skimp on the routing and firewalls in the test," Renaud says. "It took a while to set up, but the advantage was that we were truly testing what it was like for a user coming in from the outside."

The credit union's main lesson: When you initiate an online service, be prepared for a rush of new customers.

"We estimated that we'd get double the number of concurrent users once we released our new app," Renaud says. "We learned that we really needed to budget for three times the load."

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