Royal Bank of Scotland embraces open source

The UK bank is implementing what may be one of the largest deployments of Zope worldwide

The Royal Bank of Scotland has revealed that it is working on a large content management system based on the open source application server Zope.

At the end of last year, the bank sent an email to a number of Zope mailing lists, stating that it was looking for a developer to join the CMS development team in its Corporate Markets division, which provides financial services to large and medium-sized businesses and serves around 75,000 customers worldwide.

The job advert said that the bank was looking for a developer with three years experience of developing with Zope and Python and "demonstrable experience of working with and scaling high volume Zope sites".

RBS refused to provide further comment on the project, but ZDNet UK found out some more details about the project from Matt Hamilton, technical director at open source consultancy Netsight, which worked with RBS on the project.

He said that the project, which has been going on for about two years, is one of the largest deployments of Zope that he is aware of and also "one of the most sophisticated", although he was unwilling to provide technical details. RBS is using Zope to underpin the intranet for its corporate markets division. This intranet is used daily by RBS staff, including its traders, for business processes as well as retrieving information, according to Hamilton.

Graham Oakes, an independent consultant who has worked on a number of proprietary and open source CMS projects, said that it makes sense for RBS to use Zope on its intranet, as it will allow it to keep its costs down and will not directly impact customers.

"You don't need an all-singing and dancing fancy Web site if it's not for your customers," he said. "People have more control over their own intranet, for example, if people have a problem using it, you can train them. You can't do that for customers," he explained.

Oakes said that RBS's decision to use Zope is likely to encourage other companies to do the same.

"Although Linux has become pretty well established, open source applications that are further up the stack, like content management, are closer to users so companies are worried about how usable it is and how reliable it is," Oakes said. "Every little bit of publicity helps — if you hear about a large organisation using Zope you get more assurance that it's an enterprise-ready system and that it's going to stay around."

Gary Barnett, a research director at analyst firm Ovum, agreed that this migration is likely to attract interest, particularly as banks tend to be "fairly conservative adopters".

"A lot of banks are using applications like Apache and Perl, but it's interesting to see they're using Python and Zope as it's moderately hardcore open source stuff," he said.

Although many banks run Linux servers, the use of open source in user-facing applications is more rare. The Allied Irish Bank is migrating 7,500 users to the Java Desktop System and BPU Banca is migrating 8,000 workstation clients to Linux desktops, Red Hat announced last year.

The reason why open source migrations in banks are often kept quiet is due to the commercial sensitivity of projects, according to Barnett. Other potential reasons why open source migrations are kept under wraps were covered in ZDNet UK's recent special report, published last November.

Hamilton said that until RBS sent the email to the mailing list, the Zope community was unaware of the project.

"This was the first public announcement that they were using it — the Zope community didn't know," he said. "I think this signals a change in thinking — large companies are realising that to get the best out of open source they have to work with the open source community."

Hamilton claimed that RBS has successfully recruited staff with experience in developing Zope systems since posting to the mailing list. Companies are likely to struggle to recruit open source developers through the normal channels, such as recruitment agencies, he added.

"With recruitment agencies — if you say you're looking for a Zope developer, they won't have a clue what you're talking about. If you get in with the open source community you can find the right people," he said.