National Bank of Canada gets return on Web-to-host investment

The National Bank of Canada’s problem was not a new one.

Like many banks, it had a mountain of information residing on different types of databases. In its case, one was an Oracle database, the other an IBM mainframe. And that led to the same bottlenecks occurring repeatedly.

“They noticed the loan officers were not very efficient because when they were with a customer, they were having to look up information on the mainframe using a standard terminal and also be using another device — another PC basically — and looking up additional information on the same customer off of an Oracle database,” said Marc Tremblay, major accounts executive for Eicon Technology in Montreal.

The bank needed to access legacy applications via the Web, allowing clients to quickly and easily complete financial transactions through a single Web browser on a standard desktop PC.

“We were looking for a product that could connect the host to our existing transactions and make the bridge between them so we wouldn’t have to touch the host application,” said Jean Perron, director of system architecture for Montreal-based SIBN Inc., a subsidiary of the bank that handles information technology issues.

Though several Web-to-host products were considered, Perron said “the one from Eicon was the one with the best APIs to talk from our application to the product.”

According to Tremblay, the bank’s main concern was stability. “They wanted something to be very rock solid. And ease of use and time to market (were also important),” he noted.

“Within a fairly short amount of time they came out with an intranet solution based on NT that (allows) officers using a simple browser to find all the information they need very quickly and almost effortlessly,” Tremblay said.

The bank initially started out using Eicon’s Aviva product because newer software, Aviva Web-to-Host, didn’t exist at the time. “It was in beta and of course (with) our desktop product they ran into limitations you would expect because it was never designed to do what they were doing,” Tremblay said.

So the bank became a tester for the beta software “which wasn’t quite ready for prime time,” Tremblay said. “They were an excellent beta site for us and the product was much better because they were developing to our platform right away as we were designing the product.”

The Aviva Web-to-Host Server Web-enables mainframes and feeds host access through browsers over intranets and the Internet. Integrated with Microsoft Internet Information Server and Active Server Pages technology, its ActiveX-based tools recreate traditional green-screen output as contemporary Web pages.

According to Tremblay, the beta-testing allowed many problems to be solved early on. For example, “we couldn’t get more than 14 simultaneous connections to the mainframe,” he said. The team worked to rectify the problem and resolve limitations with another vendor’s software.

In addition, Tremblay said, “we hid the mainframe from the programming people.” Because a lot of people, especially junior programmers, were PC- but not mainframe-literate, Tremblay said “we handled the mainframe communications and gave them familiar tools they could use to interface to this very unfamiliar world. The result was a shortened development cycle.”

SIBN evaluated and tested Eicon’s Aviva Web-to-Host Server at the National Bank of Canada for one year. During that time they implemented projects that included virtual banking, sales force automation and “clic commerce,” the commercial portion of the bank’s business.

When it came time for rollout, Perron said virtual banking proved to be the most difficult. “We had a lot of volume of transactions so when we started to rollout there was instability on the application side…it took about two months to really stabilize it.”

As for the commercial portion, the rollout was a bit easier, because even though the enrollment phase took longer, everything found on the personal Web transaction site applied to the clic commerce portion and there was no instability, Perron explained.

Almost two years after the idea of implementing the Web-to-Host solution took hold, Perron said the Bank has completed the implementation and is now realizing the desired effect.

If it had to be done over, Perron said he would have paid more attention to load testing. “We’ve done it only after we started to have problems in production. There was instability and we didn’t know why…but when lots of people were accessing simultaneously (problems arose). Then we started to use a load tester to trace what was really going on.

“That’s why we had a two-month window of instability, because we skipped a phase that we didn’t think was an issue.”

Now, Perron said, “we would do the load testing before we implemented.”