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ColdFusion: Article

ColdFusion to the Rescue

A stopgap solution saves the day

In the 21st century business environment, companies live and die by their fat and bogus enterprise applications. New mega-industry groups have been created not only to develop these applications, but deploy, support, and train.

Nigeria is not left out of these influences. The banking industry in Nigeria is a typical example. Every bank in the country runs massive core banking applications such as Finacle from Infosys, FlexCube from Iflex (an Oracle company), Bankmaster, Phoenix, Equations, Globus, etc. These apps are expensive, clunky, and terribly difficult to use. Of all these, the cost of support, training, and hardware requirements are most annoying. Deploying any of these applications would set any organization back no less than a million dollars and it could take between eight months to four years to install. Additional user licenses could run as high as $2,000.

The cost would have been easier to account for if the ancillary cost didn't build up so fast. In terms of usability, organizations spend a lot training users how to use these apps. They usually build their processes around their idiosyncrasies instead of the other way round.

Access Bank is a typical example of a Nigerian enterprise that has deployed some of these applications. Access Bank was incorporated in 1989 as a commercial bank. It was a small fringe player until March 2002 when it was taken over by a new set of owners led by Aigboje Aig-Imoukhuede and Herbert Wigwe. At that time, the bank was running FlexCube 4.3. Either because the bank, before the new management came in, didn't implement it well, or for some other reason, FlexCube was anything but flexible. It was slow, buggy, and not user-friendly. However, in delivering its vision of transforming Access Bank into a world-class financial services provider, the new management knew it had to upgrade the banking application to the latest version. And like all enterprise applications, it would take time, cost a lot, and everyone had to be well trained.

Since customers couldn't wait for the FlexCube upgrade before getting superior customer service (why else would a customer stay with a bank when he could get better service from a competitor down the road?), the IT department was saddled with the responsibility of finding temporary solutions while the upgrade project was handed over to a project implementation team.

Like other banking applications, FlexCube 4.3 was a three-tier application with an Oracle 8i database, an application server running the business logic, and client interfaces. Since bottlenecks were at the client and application server, it was apparent that any solution must bypass the trouble spots to deliver speedy response to end users.

Specifically, the proposed temporary solution should be able to deliver all customer, account, and transaction information seamlessly to account officers and back-office staff without needing to install client-side applications. The solution must be web-based. Moreover, it must be cheap and cost-effective since it would just be ad hoc. Ad hoc because at that time it was thought that the solution would be discontinued once the FlexCube upgrade was in.

Immediately, the IT group swung into action. A slew of technologies were considered. ASP was dropped because it was considered legacy. ASP.NET was almost chosen because it came from Microsoft, was mature, and would plug well into the existing infrastructure. However, the cost of add-ons to provide functionalities such as charting, PDF generation, etc. was way beyond budget.

ColdFusion was considered. Everyone was initially put off by the price, especially when competing technologies were basically free. However, by the time the capabilities that ColdFusion could provide straight out of the box were considered dollar for dollar against ASP, JSP, ASP.NET, etc., it was obvious it was the clear winner.

ColdFusion was discovered to have the shallowest learning curve among these products. Its rapid application development paradigm was also way beyond the others.

The bank made a decision. A proprietary framework similar to Mach-II was developed. The first batch of modules was released to the staff in less than two weeks flat. This was achievable because there was no need to integrate expensive third-party middleware for PDF generation, charting, and LDAP. The most amazing thing was that only a short mail was sent out describing what the application could do. There was no need for expensive training because the interfaces and workflows were very user-friendly and extremely intuitive.

The benefits Access Bank derived from this adventure were manifold. The most important being that it was able to live up to its service delivery standard to the customers. The reality is that customers don't know and don't care what core application the bank uses. What matters is the quality of service they get.

Another benefit was that for the level of service delivered, the ColdFusion application was cheaper, more efficient, faster, and easier to use.

Overall, the application's return on investment (ROI) was the best the bank has ever seen. The total cost of deployment was less than 10 user licenses to the core banking application. Because all non-transactional activities were migrated to it, user licenses were only bought for the back-office staff, reducing the total cost of using the core banking application itself.

After this, the bank systematically developed other applications around the first one. The initial application, called Infopool, has now become the platform on which the bank is running almost all its processes. These include the bank's Web site, employee/self-service portal, the stock broking platform, etc.

Unlike other large organizations, especially other banks in Nigeria, Access Bank has discovered that implementing smart applications can complement core banking applications and reduce the total cost of business. All these would not have been possible without Adobe ColdFusion.

Other Information
Access Bank runs ColdFusion MX 7 Enterprise on three ML350 servers on Windows 2000 Enterprise Servers.

More Stories By Adédèjì Olówè

Adedeji Olowe, a business intelligence expert, has been using ColdFusion for several years. He has experience developing and extending enterprise applications for companies in the financial industry as well as systems integration.

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