Long comfortable with its stable rural customer base, Four County Bank has woken up to market conditions that leave it in dire need of a technology upgrade. How dire?

"Right now, we don't have full Internet services," says Lindsay Holloway, operations office at Four County, whose footprint includes four rural counties near Allentown, GA.

The $86 million bank's like many community banks that have served their discrete markets well for decades with the same technology, but now find themselves dramatically behind the IT curve and forced by macroeconomic factors to catch up if they want to compete. But delaying the inevitable wasn't all bad, some financial services technology vendors now offer Web-enabled platforms that allow banks to simultaneously automate a range of functions without resorting to time-consuming and costly legacy hardware replacements.

"From an architecture perspective, many [new] state-of-the-art banking platforms offer a sound multi-channel enablement layer, at least initial ingredients of the banking process platform, [greater] service provisioning and service composition," says Jost Hoppermann, a vp and analyst at Forrester Research, adding that future systems will provide extended capabilities for business services.

Executives at service providers say the pressure is fierce as banks, particularly smaller banks, seek to execute sweeping core overhauls with a lower cost of ownership. "Core banking overhaul is not just about 'core' anymore. It's been redefined. The price of entry for core systems is now ATMs, Internet banking and being able to tap all channels," says Mark Forbis, vp and CTO at Jack Henry, which offers SOA-enabled upgrades and outsourcing of core upgrades.

At Four County, there's a strong sense of urgency, if not survival instinct, in what the bank's executives are saying about the new initiatives. "We are going to get up to where we should be in the industry from a technology standpoint," Holloway says. "We needed a network overhaul five years ago. It's a huge relief to now be able to offer these services. I don't think we've necessarily lost customers because of not having this technology, but to attract new customers we have to do this upgrade now."

The bank's upgrade will utilize Web architecture that allows the bank to quickly modernize its core to improve a variety of front and back office functions without replacing the underlying hardware. The bank had a lot of options to consider, but the winning product was a core processing system offered by FIS - chosen in part because of the bank's prior relationship with the firm as its ATM vendor.

Operating in a Windows environment, the FIS platform - called BancPac - will allow Four County to customize its data processing solutions and provide customers with fast electronic access to account information.

The BancPac deployment will also aid additional long-overdue 21st century bank IT rollouts at the bank: Four County's staff will be able to expedite new account opening, offer remote capture, branch capture, online bill pay and automated loan processing. "We put a message on our Web page saying Internet banking is coming. Our customers have told us they can hardly wait," Holloway says.

Another niche institution seeking simultaneous core-related upgrades is Armed Forces Bank which is leveraging Fiserv's service oriented architecture to add integrated debit card onboarding, merchant capture processing and specialized Reg CC processing. Mike Krieg, vp, application development and product support, Dickinson Financial, one of the six banks in the Armed Forces Bank holding company, says the Reg CC deployment allows the bank to electronically calculate the amount of time a new customer's transaction should be "held" to ensure the identity of the consumer, making the process faster and more accurate.

Krieg also says automating workflow saves additional time by reducing manual data entry, and eliminates errors since the customer information collected at a point of contact is matched to back office data that's already stored in the bank's core system.

"The bank doesn't care where the data is coming from as long at they can have confidence in it," says Jim Sizemore, svp in Fiserv's bank solutions group, which has created a suite of core banking solutions that leverage service oriented architecture, making it possible to offer upgrades to the community bank sector.

Four County and Dickinson/ Armed Forces Bank didn't say how much they paid for their upgrades or give tangible ROI projections, but the cost is likely less than a full replacement of hardware, and more flexible since web architectures will make future upgrades easier.

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