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Connecting People with Finance: The Importance of Digital Transformation During the COVID Crisis

The COVID-19 crisis has led to an unprecedented acceleration in the digital transformation of the financial services industry.

As self-isolation measures were implemented globally in early 2020, banking Information Technology (IT) departments had to rapidly implement strict measures and policies in order for the majority of staff to be able to work from home. Simultaneously, departments were required to ensure systems were robust and able to cope with surging demand and spikes in online banking and mobile app usage by customers.

These changes — brought on by COVID-19 — have affected every organization in different ways. Some companies have struggled with a lack of scale and funding, yet many challenger banks and Financial Technology (FinTech) firms have in fact capitalized on their cloud-native, digitally flexible nature, mitigating their potential losses as bank branches became, at least temporarily, redundant.

Indeed, incumbent institutions, often burdened by legacy systems and physical sites, have had to significantly increase investment in technology infrastructure to stay relevant in the market. Those that had already made such investments before the pandemic began, are now beginning to reap the benefits of their operational reliability and the rewards of their resilience.

Itaú Bank’s Outlook of Digitalization

As the largest bank in Latin America, Itaú Bank operates in over 20 countries, investing approximately US$2 billion in technology Research and Development (R&D) every year.

Itaú Bank's Chief Technology Officer, Fábio Napoli, explained that of the company's almost 84,000 employees, 55,000 needed to be set up for remote working at short notice.

"We used to have 3000 people working from home daily. In response to the pandemic, this number jumped to 22,000 in the span of a week — we offered them the equipment required to make this happen, including 4G modems, as well as office supplies, chairs, and desks."

Luckily the bank was already well on track in terms of becoming fully digitalized, with an additional focus having been placed in recent years on improving customer service. However, given the social distancing restrictions that suddenly became necessary, this strategy had to shift.

"We understand that interaction with tellers in branches and traditional banking technologies, such as Automated Teller Machines (ATMs), are things that people will continue to use and want. However, the more we can make self-services available, and give people digital channels, the better. This is what Itaú strives to achieve," commented Napoli.

"Itaú understands that it is a technology company, and without technology it will not be able to evolve and offer the products that the market demands," Napoli stated, adding: "Since we have strong competition with FinTech companies, the bank understands that digital transformation is crucial to stay relevant."

Data Center Capacity

In 2014, the bank built two large-scale data centers. However, its here devices were unable to cope with the requirements for ongoing service expansion in recent years.

IT teams demanded stable and reliable running for service systems, but the legacy storage architecture was becoming outdated, with expired warranties on the live network and a high component fault rate further causing complications.

Itaú carried out Proof of Concept (PoC) tests for alternative products, finding that Huawei’s solution gave stable storage performance, with its Redundant Array of Independent Disks Triple-Parity (RAID-TP) technology tolerating concurrent failures of three disks without interrupting services.

Overcoming storage bottlenecks was one of the key imperatives for the bank. System efficiency had suffered from performance allocation that did not match the service system, with the Statistical Analysis System (SAS) restricting the core service system for personal bank cards.

Before deploying Huawei's data center technology, Itaú Bank used 154 sets of network storage devices, occupying significant cabinet space in its three data centers. However, this only provided 36.9 PB of available capacity, while the devices and cooling systems consumed huge amounts of power, increasing Total Cost of Ownership (TCO).

Huawei's OceanStor All-Flash Arrays (AFAs) reduced power consumption for devices and cooling systems each by 45% and maintenance costs by 65%.

All-Flash Storage Technology

Itaú Bank's IT Operation Superintendent, Augusto Stracieri, explained that his team has always tried to be forward-thinking in terms of innovation. In this case, it was mid-2017 when they started looking into all-flash technology, but it took time to prepare for such an upgrade.

"Last year our studies began to point out that all-flash technology was ripe enough for a smooth evolution. We began to see that, from the compression, data reduction, resilience, and quality of these solutions, a balance between performance, cost, and efficiency could be made."

Augusto continued: "Huawei demonstrated a high level of initiative, technical competence, and effort to get the equipment installed and operating – even against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic."

The OceanStor Dorado solution was delivered in March 2020, ahead of schedule, and crucially before the pandemic really took hold in Brazil.

"OceanStor Dorado V6 is behaving better than expected in relation to data reduction rate and performance," he added. "We are still beginning migrations, but can already observe the improved performance, and that all attests to the investment in Huawei's OceanStor Dorado V6 that was made."

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