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How Russia's oldest bank found itself on the leading edge of in-memory computing

Katherine Noyes | June 1, 2016
'The systems built 15 years ago couldn't cope,' one executive says.

It's not your average company that can trace its origins back to a nineteenth-century Russian tsar, but then, Sberbank is no average financial institution.

Established through a decree by Emperor Nikolai I in 1841, Sberbank is Russia's oldest bank and has played a long and storied role in the nation's history. Today, with more than 16,000 branches in all 83 constituent entities of the Russian Federation -- traversing 11 time zones -- it serves roughly 70 percent of the Russian population.

Therein lie the roots of the bank's very modern challenge.

Whereas once virtually all transactions were conducted in person during office hours and on bank premises, the arrival of the Internet turned that pattern on its head. No longer constrained by branch operating schedules or the on-site availability of bank officers, customer-service demands skyrocketed as consumer expectations extended 24/7.

To wit: Roughly a decade ago, Sberbank had to handle 30 or so transactions per second; today, it's more like 3,000 to 4,000 transactions, said Mikhail Khasin, the bank's vice president of engineering.

"The problem we faced is one that's common to any tier one bank in the world," Khasin said. "The development of digital channels over the last 10 to 15 years has resulted in a dramatic increase in workload."

'The systems couldn't cope'

Also contributing to the increase is the sheer number of transactions being executed. It's not so much that more money is being exchanged overall, Khasin explained; rather, consumers are breaking many kinds of expenditures down into smaller increments across a much larger number of transactions.

"Say a consumer used to pay $100 a month to top up their mobile phone," he said. "Today, they may spend $2 or $3 per day."

More transactions means yet more workload. By late 2014 it had become clear: "The systems built 15 years ago couldn't cope," Khasin said.

Traditionally, the obvious solution would be a hardware upgrade. And under traditional banking conditions -- including periods of time when no branches are open, so no transactions need occur -- there would be ample time for the batch processing and maintenance that go along with that approach.

In this era of round-the-clock banking, however, that kind of solution didn't make sense, Khasin said.

Sberbank also hoped to achieve better integration across its various products and services. Typically, banks have had a series of vertical software stacks, Khasin explained -- one for payments, for example, another for mortgages. With the advent of the Internet era, clients began to want access to all their products in the same place.

"It's a huge effort to build an integration layer that interacts with all these platforms and provides a client-centric view," he said.


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