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Avoid IT Overload

By: Peter Melerud

Austin Bank is a family-run bank with 30 locations in 21 cities and 10 East Texas counties. It has undergone exceptional growth due to several recent mergers while its online and mobile banking operations have also grown based on increased customer traffic. The bank has 22,000 online banking customers it needs to keep satisfied and loyal.

The goal was to build a strong Internet customer service capability; consequently, the bank implemented load balancers to manage its increased traffic and maintain high availability of Web infrastructure in order to keep its website and banking applications up and running. Load balancers — also known as application front-end devices, application delivery controllers and Web front-ends — distribute the traffic load between two or more servers, network links, CPUs, hard drives or other resources, and off-load compute-intensive tasks from servers in order to optimize resource utilization, throughput, and response time. If customers have to wait too long for transactions, they may leave the bank for a competitor, which means loss of revenue and the expense of having to find new customers.

Recently, Austin Bank chose to deploy software-based load balancing appliances in its data centers to work in conjunction with its existing appliances. These virtual load balancing appliances, or software-based ADCs, provide many or all of the same functionality that is resident in hardware-based appliances, but with the added benefit of being tightly integrated with the virtualization platform’s hypervisor or virtual machine manager. This allows multiple operating systems, also known as guests, to run concurrently on a host computer, resulting in easier management and better efficiency.
 
When Something Works, Stick With It

Austin Bank purchased KEMP Technologies’ hardware-based LoadMaster application delivery controllers in 2005 to manage server traffic for online banking. To support its most recent growth in customers following a merger, the bank recently purchased the Virtual LoadMaster and LoadMaster DR to work in conjunction with the existing physical boxes.

The VLM is a software version of the server load balancer, running in a virtualized environment. Virtualization can make multiple ADCs, servers or applications function autonomously within a single hardware device, meaning that each virtual ADC has its own set of rules separately managed from one another, and overall management is centralized. There is no need to maintain hardware and costs associated with power consumption are reduced or eliminated. Customers connect to the fastest performing data center or server for reliable and continuous connectivity. When a primary site is down, traffic is diverted to the disaster recovery site. Customers can bank at their convenience.

Currently, the bank has two Texas physical data centers — one in Whitehouse and one in Longview, which are about 40 miles apart. It is able to have a hot standby that can handle daily traffic and also be available in case of failure at the second data center location. The bank did experience one failure on a busy Friday with its exchange server and the load balancer appliance handled all the additional traffic that was routed to it. Conversely, a physical server, even when idle still requires ongoing backups, maintenance and licensing costs — not to mention the energy costs associated with running it.

In addition to its hardware appliances, the bank’s latest virtual solution simplifies its network architecture and keeps its external traffic separate from internal traffic. The external traffic from customers is now being handled by the virtual load balancer, which eliminates the power and maintenance cost. Ongoing management is simpler, which further helps reduce operating expenses and increases return on investment. As with a hardware ADC, there is the same Web user interface for ease of management and administration.

Using a virtual machine, Austin Bank can avoid having to take a server down for maintenance. Online banking traffic is heaviest in the evening — a time of day when maintenance tasks are usually scheduled. Therefore, it is not conducive to doing scheduled maintenance on physical servers or the network in the evening.

Support for Online Growth

The bank also found initial installation of the virtual appliance to be quite simple. It was up and running in less than two days without having to take the network out of service. The IT staff was able to do the set-up on its own without help from the vendor. Setup without service disruption was important to the bank as the installation occurred in December — a busy online shopping time when retailers and individuals are using the banking network in high volume.

“There is never a good time to do backbone work, but with the virtual appliance the work is seamless and non-intrusive,” said Jeff Sowell, Austin Bank vice president in charge of network support. The bank felt secure in knowing that the load balancers would work immediately without risk to everyday traffic.

Using the virtual machine has many advantages, including the ability to make changes and provide enhancements to the website more quickly and eliminating the need for domain name server changes. The DNS is used to map IP addresses to domain names, which people use to reference computers. For example, with its 22,000 online banking customers, Austin Bank has recently implemented mobile banking for the iPhone. All mobile traffic goes to the virtual appliance, which provides better performance than the existing boxes.

With its new data center products installed, Austin Bank can continue to be a medium-sized bank and offer the capabilities of a big bank.

Peter Melerud is co-founder and vice president product development at KEMP Technologies.

Copyright (c) March 2012 by BankNews Media

 


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