technological hurdle: How to share information cost-effectively among branch offices without sacrificing the speed and security of financial transactions. Many banks, in order to meet market demands and to improve internal communications, are building client/server systems that will allow bankers or customers to access and share information over networks of personal computers. But few bankers are comfortable with the idea of using relatively unproven client/server technology for critical applications such as teller machine transaction or branch security information. Banks have a huge installed base of these systems and are reluctant, for reasons of security and economy, to tinker with them. A full 95% of the systems banks use today run on mainframes, where information flows are highly secure, with data typically traveling from a terminal in the branch to the host very rapidly. Eventually, network technology will advance to the point where it can handle all bank transactions. In the meantime, host-based systems and client/server systems will have to coexist. For many banks, satellite technology could be the most effective way to migrate over time to a client/server architecture. A satellite network allows a bank to share information among branches, off-site automated teller machines, and kiosks while preserving the integrity and security of time-critical applications. A bank can run all its data over a single network of small earth stations (called VSATs, for very small aperture terminals), segregating high-volume financial transactions from less sensitive electronic mail and file-sharing transactions. For example, high-volume ATM traffic could run on one channel, file transfers and other local area network traffic on another, and security systems data on a third. When Synovus Financial Corp., the $5.7 billion bank holding company in Columbus, Ga., was looking for a way for its affiliates to share electronic mail, loan documents, and sales and customer data, it chose a VSAT network. The network is replacing one in which affiliates were linked only to the data center. Synovus is using the satellite network for all its host-based financial traffic, in addition to new applications like electronic mail, platform automation, and mortgage loan origination systems. The satellite network gives Synovus the ideal migration path from host-based systems to client/server systems, without compromising security. Besides security, banks look at reliability, cost, and flexibility when they evaluate new technologies. VSAT networks score high marks in each of these areas. VSATs are more reliable and easier to manage than terrestrial wide area networks. The VSAT network is a star network - each location on the network is on a point-to-point circuit - so data travels straight to its destination. Contrast that with a terrestrial network and its many pieces of equipment, like routers and multiplexers, that manage traffic levels and move data on to the right destination. Each of these pieces of equipment is a potential point of bottleneck or failure. The manager of a wide area network needs a high degree of understanding and experience, and such experts are few and far between. Satellite networks can be less expensive than terrestrial networks, especially for banks with far-flung branches. A bank whose branches are within a telephone company's region but far apart from one another will pay the company more for service than will a bank whose branches are all in a single city. Costs also go up with the number of telephone companies that a bank must deal with to reach each branch. Charges for frame relay or other services vary from region to region and may fluctuate over time within a region. But VSATs cost the same no matter where a bank is located. Installing or adding to a VSAT network is easier and faster than installing or adding to a leased line network. The first piece of the network is the hub, which a bank can either own, as does First Union of Charlotte, N.C., or share with other companies, as Synovus does. The hub is the control center, the brains of the network, and it must be connected by a terrestrial line to the bank's data center, which could be in the same building or hundreds of miles away. Next comes installing the earth stations. The VSAT has two components, an outdoor unit, or antenna, and an indoor, control unit. A VSAT can be installed in a couple of hours. The most complicated part of the process is determining whether local zoning laws permit a satellite dish where you want to place it. Banks can install one VSAT per office or use a single VSAT to handle traffic from several nearby locations. Banks that are on the acquisition trail find they can easily accommodate the data traffic from disparate computer systems by installing a satellite network. In 1989 we installed a VSAT network at Bank South, based in Atlanta, to handle data from newly acquired banks in Florida and South Georgia. Once, we discovered that we needed a data circuit at a supermarket branch the very next day. We installed the VSAT in a few hours, and the new branch operated without a hitch. Mr. Cisewski, a consultant, was director of information services for BankSouth Corp.
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