Banking on sun

Banking on sun

By Stuart Finlayson

Technology experts at Suncorp-Metway had the foresight to see the way they were managing and sharing their information had to change. They are now reaping the rewards. By Stuart Finlayson.

As the largest Queensland-based corporation, and one of the top 30 companies in Australia as a whole, managing information in an efficient manner is critical to an organisation the size of banking and insurance company Suncorp-Metway.

The Suncorp Group comprises Australia's sixth largest bank and second largest general insurance group, with total assets of $36 billion and funds under management exceeding $9.5 billion.

The Group was created on 1 December, 1996 when the Queensland Government owned Suncorp and QIDC groups were merged into the publicly listed Metway Bank Ltd Group. In 2001, the Suncorp Group made its first major acquisition with the purchase of AMP's GIO general insurance business in Australia.

Its main businesses are banking, insurance, investment and superannuation products with a focus on retail consumers and small to medium size businesses.

A few years ago, before it became fashionable, Suncorp-Metway recognised the need to bring together disparate types of information into one, and so sought out a suitable corporate portal.

Damian Trad, information systems manager at Suncorp-Metway, describes the aims of the project when in its infancy, and how it developed into the corporate portal that is at the disposal of its workforce today: "The original specification that we put forward was to amalgamate and aggregate different types of business content together into a single medium.

"The senior management team were after something like this because they had a lot of information coming in, but it was all over the place, so they were continually losing track of where information was being held. One of the main drivers was aggregating all the different types of content so that they could always have it at their fingertips."

Trad says the initial implementation for the executive team was well received, prompting representatives from various departments of the company to ask for information to be included that related to their direct reports: "It got to the stage where we needed something that was pretty robust and all-encompassing in terms of securing a very large amount of data and very different types of documents into one system."

Recognising that they were dealing with a content management problem, Suncorp-Metway started shopping around for a portal that would meet their needs.After some searching, it was Stirling Software - which has since been acquired by Computer Associates - that came out on top: "The market was quite small back then - there weren't that many [portal vendors] around," says Trad. "I suppose part of our criteria was to choose something that had a support base in Australia, so that narrowed down the field quite significantly. We also wanted something that would run on the workstations we already had in place."

"Having all our business intelligence available in one place and not having to continually look in different areas was a very attractive proposition. We have all sorts of different documents, such as PDF's, Word documents, Excel spreadsheets, as well as management reports and detailed expenditure information, sales and productivity information. It brings together a whole range of different types of content."

The portal also played a very important role in the massive task of collaborating information following Suncorp's acquisition in 2001 of AMP's GIO general insurance business in Australia: "When we acquired GIO, we acquired all their management information systems as well, so to an extent we were back to square one again in terms of sourcing information, but the fact that we were able to link all their information into a common platform was very beneficial."

Trad adds that the portal has also had a significant impact on the company's storage capacity: "Before we had our portal, we would email reports out to people who would continually have their inboxes full as a result. What was happening then is that they were deleting reports to free up space, but then a few months later when they had to refer to that report, they were requesting for it to be sent again.

So having such reports on our portal at all times has reduced our storage requirement, cut out duplication of information and increased our productivity because we are not being asked to re-supply information again and again."

With scalability and functionality being the very essence of portal technology, Trad says that Suncorp are continually looking at ways in which to maximise the effectiveness of their particular portal, so impressed are they with its performance to date: "CleverPath Portal has so far been equal to any demands we have made of it. We now plan to add further analytical functionality that will allow managers to track and analyse key performance indicators, monitor strategic initiatives and develop relevant queries accordingly."

Banking on a storage solution

While the CleverPath Portal enabled Suncorp-Metway to access and share information quickly and easily, it still faced a major challenge in the shape of how to effectively manage its ever-growing stockpile of customer and business data.

In the past, Suncorp's answer to that particular quandary was simply to add more and more servers and storage devices to keep pace. Realising though that the company's storage system was growing out of control prompted the company to examine alternative methods of storing data that allowed it to stabilise its growing server environment and simplify storage management.

Howard Charles, former technical services manager at Suncorp-Metway, outlines the situation the company faced: "Our IT environment was growing in such a haphazard manner that we couldn't plan for capacity very well. Backing up data reliably was becoming a real problem. We also wanted to centralise our resources so we could manage our disk storage better."

Suncorp arrived at the decision that its aims would be more achievable if it were to migrate from a direct-attached storage model to an environment where any server could connect to any storage device. The company also sought to improve the quality and speed of the daily backup process by means of automation.

It did all this through the implementation of a fibre channel SAN infrastructure based on Brocade SilkWorm 2800 switches complete with the QuickLoop feature that enabled Suncorp to seamlessly migrate from its then arbitrated loop environment to its current full fabric environment: "Selecting Brocade switches was easy," says Charles. "With their open architecture and adoption by virtually all the server, disk and tape vendors, Brocade switches enabled us to implement a truly open SAN architecture. Any server plugged into the SAN can connect directly to any of our storage devices at high bandwidth."

The migration to a SAN environment brought with it a number of benefits. Suncorp was able to reduce its number of tape devices from 70 to 14 tape drives in two libraries; the number of Windows NT servers deployed was reduced from 150 to 30; deployment and file restoration times were significantly faster; remote backup and data duplication was carried out automatically; and service levels for both internal and external customers increased.

Not only did Suncorp's migration to a SAN environment benefit the company greatly in terms of a reduction in required hardware, it also led to massively improved performance times and huge cost savings.

The company enjoyed a 500 percent performance improvement in backup throughput. Over $2 million in savings were made, based primarily on reduced disk storage requirements. The company is also making ongoing savings of between $5,000 and $15,000 for each new server as a consequence of no longer having to purchase separate tape and disk systems: "We now have a 99.6 percent success rate on our backups, so we're confident that our data is secure," says Charles. "We also standardised the backup software with HP OmniBack, and that has significantly lowered management costs and administrative tasks. Help desk staff can now restore files within 30 minutes, whereas the pre-SAN restoration often required days."

Looking to the future, Charles says that the SAN infrastructure makes it far easier to manage its anticipated data growth: "We expect to grow by about 200 or 300 ports in the near future. Having a standard SAN architecture means that we're much quicker to get our infrastructure configured. As a result, we're a lot more responsive, and our data is better protected."

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