Today's sophisticated consumers want to be able to use the Web to check their account balances, transfer funds, pay bills, apply for loans, download account information, trade stocks, and scrutinize images of checks and deposit slips.

As a result, most banks are scrambling to catch up with the industry leaders by transforming their Web sites from an informational to a transactional focus.

With more than 70% of banking data currently housed in mainframe systems, according to Seattle-based hosting specialist WRQ Inc., many institutions are wrestling with ways to make their databases more accessible.

Some consider rewriting or replacing these systems to be the only option. But over 75% of existing systems can be Web-enabled relatively fast and at less than replacement cost.

REDEFINITION OF TERMS

The determining factor is often age, though this is by no means an ironclad rule.

What constitutes a "legacy" system - an older one that cannot use current technologies - is a moving target. A year or two ago it mostly applied to mainframes. Lately it has come to mean anything not designed specifically with the Web in mind.

Legacy structures might consist of fairly recent client/server networks, such as Windows machines hooked to servers. Except for recent models, many were not designed to make full use of the Web. (Windows 2000 and Office 2000 are probably the first truly Web-enabled systems developed by Microsoft, though Windows 98 offers more Internet functionality than its predecessors.)

Similarly, the phrase "Web-enabled" goes far beyond merely displaying information over the Internet. During the pioneer days of the Web it was enough to just provide the information. Then, for a brief period, interaction became the norm. Today, a truly Web-enabled must have full transactional capabilities.

That's why it's important to look at the full Web enablement of banking systems.

PLANNING AND DESIGN

Planning is the first ingredient. Without proper planning, some banks have been persuaded to throw out all existing systems and start from scratch, which is often unnecessary.

It is therefore essential to analyze just what an institution has in relation to what it wants to achieve.

Carefully review current hardware and software assets and determine whether they:

  • Must be completely replaced to be part of a Web strategy.
  • Require certain enhancements and business functionalities added to make them Internet ready.
  • Cannot be integrated with other technologies.
  • Perform well and are ready to be Web-enabled.

Design comes next. The design maps out the appropriate actions to move each asset toward Web functionality. Various tools, approaches, and conversion techniques can be called upon.DEVELOP, INTEGRATE, DEPLOY

These steps are largely self-explanatory, but they must be clearly defined and followed.

Development means implementing what you have designed. It bridges the gap between planning/design and physical reality.

Sometimes this is a straightforward matter, but it can turn into a lengthy step.

Integration issues must be addressed before the development process is completed. There is no point in building a system that integrates poorly with surrounding assets. A new mortgage lending system, for instance, might need several additional applications to make the new system integrate well with existing databases and systems.

Deployment is making the available equipment and software available to users or the general public.

Instead of taking the "big bang" approach of trying to install a complex system simultaneously across the globe, it is usually best to start with a pilot test, isolate and resolve any bugs, and gradually phase in the new system throughout the enterprise.

However a new system is deployed, training is crucial. Staff members must be educated so they can install and manage the system.

Users need to become completely familiar with new equipment and procedures well in advance of the go-live date. Their feedback should be scrutinized and, where possible, adjustments made to provide a more user-friendly experience.

In survey after survey, training comes up as the weak link in even the best-planned and best-executed system upgrades.

BE PREPARED

There are plenty of computer consulting companies out there happy to take the easy route - building banking systems from the ground up to make them accessible over the Web and able to cope with every type of financial transaction. By choosing this course, a bank avoids the technical challenges involved in development and integration.

Though this simplifies matters for the consultants and engineers, it is a path fraught with difficulty and delay, and is always far more expensive.

Fortunately for financial institutions, as much as 80% of existing systems can be Web-enabled. There is rarely any need to consign legacy systems to the scrap heap.

Leveraging existing assets and data may be more difficult technically but saves money and gets you to market faster with a comprehensive array of Internet-ready transactional services.


Mr. Bentov is founder and CEO of The A Consulting Team Inc. in New York, which helps clients move to the Internet from traditional mainframe and client/server environment.

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