Westpac's online failures expose weak points

What happened to backup systems after multiple hardware failures crippled Westpac's online banking system?
Written by Munir Kotadia, Contributor

Westpac, one of the biggest banks in Australia, experienced multiple hardware failures on Monday and at the end of last week, which caused its online banking service to fall over for hours at a time.

In today's e-commerce society, a faulty online service is the equivalent of a retail premise being locked with the windows boarded up. So you would think that very large companies would ensure that redundancies kick in during times of emergency.

After a Westpac customer and ZDNet Australia reader tipped us off, I spoke to the bank's media relations team to find out what was going on. The head of department, David Lording, boasted that Westpac has "backup systems on backup systems". Unfortunately, the facts are that the online bank was crippled several times, with Lording solely pointing the finger at "hardware failures".

What was the nature of these "hardware failures"? Well, Lording wasn't saying. But he had other things to say about the downtime suffered by Westpac. Below is an excerpt of my conversation with him on Monday afternoon. By then, the site had been inaccessible periodically from last Thursday to Monday:

Kotadia: So why is the Internet banking down right now?

Lording: Mate, we told you, there was a hardware issue.

Kotadia: But I was told it was fixed.

Lording: But that was last week.

Kotadia: So this is a new hardware issue is it?

Lording: Yea, that's right. A new one mate.

Kotadia: So do you not have any backup? If you have a hardware issue and there is a problem there, don't you have any backup systems?

Lording: Yeah of course we do mate.

Kotadia: So why aren't they working right now?

Lording: Well. We are rectifying the problem.

At this point he goes on to ridicule ZDNet Australia's readership base.

Lording: You go out to your little tech readers and you try and beat up a security issue that is not there. Well mate, I tell ya. I will be monitoring what you write and you better get it correct.

Kotadia: OK. So what you are saying right now is, there was a hardware issue last week and that was fixed and there is another hardware issue that you are working on. And you don't have any backup systems -- or you do? I am trying to figure out because ...

Lording: Look mate, what do you mean you are trying to work it out? All I am telling you is that we have had a hardware issue. It has reoccurred today and we are fixing the problem.

Kotadia: So do you have a backup system?

Lording: Oh mate get real, we are one of the biggest f**king banks in the country.

Kotadia: OK, so you do have a backup system?

Lording: Look mate, we have backup systems on backup systems ... but we have a hardware issue we are trying to rectify.

Kotadia: So if you have backup systems upon backup systems, then why is it that your system is down right now?

Lording: What are you trying to suggest?

Kotadia: I am trying to figure out why my readers cannot access your online banking services.

Lording: Well I am telling you. All I am saying to you, on the record, is that we have had a hardware issue.

Kotadia: OK.

Lording: That we are currently rectifying.

Kotadia: Has this hardware issue been happening all weekend?

Lording: No.

Kotadia: When do you think your customers will be able to access -- [interrupted].

Lording: I don't have a timeline at the moment.

I certainly hope this isn't the response Lording gives his customers when met with a difficult query.

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