We're all bankers now

IT in the financial services sector has always been under some unusual pressures. Now everyone else is feeling them too

A foreign exchange dealer at Credit Suisse I know used to describe with great relish what happened when one of his fellow traders suffered the indignity of a computer failure. These traders can win or lose millions of dollars in a few seconds and so have little tolerance for even brief system outages. When his system failed this particular trader would simply stand up, pick up his phone receiver by its flex, and smash it repeatedly against his monitor until the SWAT team of IT paramedics rushed over with a crash cart to defibrillate his ailing system -- and replace his smashed phone.

The story sums up the brutal realities of providing IT support in trading environments where a phrase like 'mission critical' really means something. Zero tolerance of downtime is only one characteristic of trading environments, which have always been at the sharp end of IT. Trading environments have lots of big problems to solve. They need to manage a global heterogeneous computer environment, and must handle a blizzard of important financial transactions round the clock, with harsh financial penalties for any screw-ups.

The currently fashionable conceit of the 'always on' enterprise, the idea that IT must work all the time to provide timely information to everyone in the business, has been driving such IT departments for years. They've been at the forefront in building high-speed wide area networks to support global trading operations. They've had a huge regulatory burden, as they've had to cope with evolving financial services legislation designed to open markets and prevent money laundering. They have massive phone bills and some complex telephony infrastructure to manage, as they need to ensure they can record everything their employees say and be able to retrieve those conversations in the event of a legal dispute. In fact IT is so woven into their business that in a sense it is their business. Yet in my conversations with IT managers in the City the thing that has always stood out for me is not the particulars of this unique challenge -- but how pissed off they were with their suppliers, particularly the people who sold them their software.

An annoyed IT customer is not exactly a mystery. Over the last three years these IT managers have faced the same enormous pressure to keep their businesses competitive and to make the best of new technology, but with a frozen budgets, no new headcount, and no access to the army of contract IT consultants they can throw at their problems during the good times. Yet over and above the sorts of headaches that they shared with many other tech professionals managing a downturn, they had one very particular grievance: they were absolutely furious with the vendors who provided the software they used to run their back-end processing systems. They were married to these systems, which they used to do their core banking transactions, and were locked in to paying hefty maintenance fees to keep them up and running. Yet despite the amount they paid they had constant problems getting basic updates to their software and in getting the level of service they expected for fixing bugs and problems. Some had open trouble tickets or software tweaks that had been dragging on for years.

Many complained about receiving poor support from service personnel working in offshore departments, and some felt that the vendors were simply running down fixed costs and service levels because they knew they could get away with it. They had their customers by the short and curlies. The banks didn't have the capital budget required to make the huge investment they would need in order to move either to more modern software, or a vendor from whom they felt they were likely to get better support. The switching costs were simply too high. They were unhappily married, with no prospect of divorce any time soon.

In 15 years of talking to those at the sharp end, the vituperation I've heard from City IT managers in this position has been among the bleakest. Yet the odd feeling that I've been getting over the last few months is that many of the characteristics of the financial services sector are beginning to spread into the broader world of business. Retailers, manufacturers, drug companies, government departments -- their IT infrastructure is assuming the same role as that of the pioneering adopters of IT such as the large global banks. The more central IT becomes to everyone's business, the more pressure there is on IT departments to deliver, the more dependant businesses become on those suppliers, and the more pressured those relationships are becoming.

The whole enterprise space is rapidly maturing: as in the pioneering financial services sector, the hardware, software, networking and communications infrastructure is largely in place as a sunk cost. The switching costs and dependencies of a major revolution in infrastructure, like the one involved in embracing the Internet, are simply too high. Capital investment is shrinking and the emphasis is on making the most of what's there, driving down maintenance costs, and using outsourcing and offshoring to whittle away at the total cost of ownership of the existing infrastructure. And the marriage between the enterprise and its primary software suppliers is showing strain, with little investment in new applications and heavy discounting from vendors such as PeopleSoft and Siebel.

The most important vendors, like Microsoft, SAP, and Oracle, seem to be developing that same wary mutual dependency and suspicion that you can feel in those difficult financial services marriages. Except for one difference -- there's hope. A torrid love affair with Linux might make divorce financially possible for the first time, but even if it's only a brief fling, it's making it easier to drive harder bargains. Enterprise customers are increasingly resentful of software licensing fees, and they're bringing a battle-hardened scepticism to the business of managing their IT investment. It's got hard-nosed, grumpy, rather grown-up -- rather like the banking sector. And it's not going to change any time soon.

Are you a born-again banker? Let me know at michael.parsons@zdnet.co.uk.