FOR ALMOST A DECADE, champions of the Unix operating system have touted its flexibility and relative openness.

Now, it appears, bankers are finally starting to believe them.

Although only a fraction of banks' computers use Unix today to manage processing tasks, the number is expected to double within three years.

Who would have guessed a system developed primarily for scientists and engineers would become a major contender in the bank technology arena?

Propelled by competitive and financial pressures, many banks are continuing to incorporate client-server computing, in which networks of personal computers share data and processing functions.

One major goal is to deliver information when and where it's needed. Open systems -- which can run on different hardware platforms -- are a key part of the client-server strategy. And Unix can play a big part in pushing that goal.

"Unix is ready for prime time in banking," said Tsvi Gal, vice president, information technology, at Wells Fargo & Co., San Francisco.

The $53 billion-asset company views Unix as a "strategic platform for modern banking," and one route it will follow to achieve open systems.

The 1994 survey of banking technology, co-sponsored by American Banker, Andersen Consulting, and Tower Group, reflects Mr. Gal's optimism.

To be sure, deployment of Unix by banks is still relatively slight. But the percentage of all microcomputers running Unix is increasing rapidly, rising from 0.4% in 1993 to 3% this year. That percentage is projected to double by 1997.

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With the exception of trading floors, which run it for both client and server computers, Unix is most often deployed within the server environment.

"You need the server to be open in order to accommodate the various host environments you need to connect to," said Nick Calabro, president of Republic Services Corp., a unit of $41.9 billion-asset Republic New York Corp., which like Wells has chosen Unix for its branch automation system.

Servers based on powerful reduced instruction set chips are being touted as an ideal architecture for open systems computing within Unix. But the survey found that servers based on such chips are used much less often than their Intel-based counterparts.

Today, there are only 2,470 RISC-based servers in use among banks. But that number will increase at a compounded annual growth rate of 151% through 1997, when 14,350 are projected to be installed. Intelbased. servers currently number 42,500, according to the survey. The anticipated total for 1997 is 65,400.

Banks are deploying Unix servers for a host of functions, including branch automation, decision support, and imaging, according to Marty Shepard, director of enterprise computing for AT&T Global Information Solutions, formerly NCR Corp. And traditional mainframe applications such as human resources and general ledger are beginning to be moved to Unix platforms.

Mr. Shepard added that several community banks are moving their entire core processing applications to Unix. "Many systems providers are delivering solid Unix solutions for this market," he said.

While banks are taking advantage of Unix, Microsoft's Corp.'s Windows NT appears poised for even greater success. While the operating system is not yet ready for prime time, nearly a quarter of bank microcomputers are expected to run the software by 1997, primarily in the server environment.

"Windows NT will be a mover and shaker in the financial industry," Mr. Shepard said. Initially, the operating system will be deployed as branch and departmental server solutions, with larger-scale implementations to follow.

The reliability, availability, and serviceability that make Unix attractive are also being built into Windows NT, Mr. Shepard said. Windows NT also offers a built-in network operating system, he added.

The future for another operating system, International Business Machine Corp.'s OS/2, doesn't look so bright. Just 12% of all microcomputers at banks will be running it in 1997, the survey found.

For Republic, Unix has already proven itself as a viable strategy for branch automation. "Back in 1991, everyone thought I was crazy to attempt this," Mr. Calabro said, adding that other big banks such as Bank of America have decided to undertake similar branch automation strategies.

Currently, Mr. Calabro and his team are designing what he calls a new information architecture for the organization.

"Over the years, our systems approach to our lines of business has been tactical in nature, meaning that we developed or bought a solution that was targeted specifically at a particular business need," he said. "Not enough consideration was given to the need for making information accessible to others throughout the organization."

As the need for sharing information increased, Republic was forced to write many different interfaces for passing files among various systems.

To streamline information access, the bank will build an information pipeline, in which Unix servers, relational data bases, and data warehouses will play major roles. The openness of Unix, Mr. Calabro said, will allow Republic to tie together its various tactical systems.

For Wells Fargo, the openness and flexibility of Unix will allow it to achieve rapid application development in the short term. That will reduce the time it takes to bring new products to market, said Mr. Gal.

And in the longer term, he said, the bank will reap savings through improved price performance of the hardware and reductions in systems maintenance and staff expenses.

The bank is moving some of its core processing applications off the mainframe onto RISC-based Unix servers. The project is part of a strategy to integrate client-server computing into the bank's mainframe environment, Mr. Gal said.

Unix, he added, is an ideal engine for relational data base management systems and for data warehousing.

He said the server environment right now is dominated by Unix, while the desktop has been won by Microsoft.

The survey proves him right. This year, 47% of microcomputers will run Microsoft's Windows operating system, primarily on the client side. That figure is expected to increase to 51% by 1997.

While Microsoft might be excused for feeling a little complacent with the success of Windows, Unix vendors have some gripes to contend with.

Although some tools that permit the movement of information among different platforms are available, true openness hasn't yet arrived. "The only thing that spurred the Unix vendors to begin talking to each other was the threat of Windows NT," said Mr. Gal.

Despite these drawbacks, Unix -- for now at least -- is the most promising route toward open systems.

"If you want to move toward open systems now, Unix is the answer," said Melinda Lauffenburger, vice president at Liberty Bancorp.

The $2.8 billion-asset company is pursuing an open systems, client-server strategy, Ms. Lauffenburger said.

The strategy includes using Unix servers to run branch automation and deliver information from a variety of computer systems. When it makes sense, said Ms. Lauffenburger, Liberty will pull applications off the mainframe and run them in the client-server environment. So far, office automation applications have been moved off the mainframe.

Ms. Lauffenburger acknowledges that Unix is not without problems. But she said "There's a lot more right with it than there is wrong."

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