Monitors attached to CPUs. That’s how we roughly visualize computers. But at the Ekantakuna branch of Laxmi Bank, all computing tasks are performed solely by monitors. Simply put, the monitors in the branch aren’t attached to stand-alone CPUs, the brain of computers. Yet they can perform all the jobs a PC can do.
Confused? Don’t be. The desktop appliances used by the branch are called thin clients. These units don’t have their own processor, memory and storage devices, as in PCs, but instead borrow these resources from a “powerful” server located in a remote location. So basically, all “monitors” in the branch are attached to one CPU with higher capacity.
One of the benefits of resorting to this technology, called desktop virtualization, is that you can use your resources efficiently. How? Just check your hard drive. You probably haven’t used half of the storage capacity of, say, 200 GB. In an office with 100 employees, this roughly makes 10,000 GB of unused hard disk space. This is the same with memory and processor, as we don’t make full use of all the resources installed in our PCs. Now imagine how much of IT resources all the offices that haven’t adopted desktop virtualization must be wasting.
“Once you virtualize, problems related to inefficient use of resources come to an end as they can be allocated, based on need,” Jivan Limbu, chief technology officer of Laxmi Bank, told The Week. In other words, the technology allows you to divide storage space, memory and processor capacity among different computers, as per demand. So a computer that needs lots of memory and storage space is allotted more of these resources while those needing less are given accordingly. “This saves costs,” Limbu said, disclosing the bank’s future plans to roll out such technology in other branches as well.
Laxmi Bank, which is among the pioneers in introducing Internet banking in the country, embarked on the virtualization journey after realizing it was becoming “uneconomical” to continue purchasing IT resources and stand-alone computer units whose benefits weren’t being fully reaped by employees. It then started scouting out for options and bumped into thin clients whose cost stood at around Rs 15,000 per unit, compared with Rs 35,000 for a desktop computer.
“Of course, you have to spend a little more on a big CPU (server) that can handle all the loads. But again, we can recoup the amount by saving on our electricity bills,” Limbu said.
It’s said thin clients consume only around 2-10 watts of energy compared with 20-60 watts by an average PC.
“In a country where electricity is a rare and expensive commodity, and companies are trying to add green credentials, migrating to thin clients does make sense,” Limbu said.
Around 10 kilometers away from the branch, where the bank’s headquarters is located, Laxmi Bank has deployed similar technique, but in its data center.
A data center is a place where all electronic data created by a company are stored. In most of the banks in the country, most of these centers are crammed with dozens of tower servers, with each server performing only one task. For instance, a separate server is connected to the payment gateway which connects the bank with utility companies for online bill payment. While another server is deployed to establish link with the transaction gateway which connects the bank with e-stores like muncha.com or e-payment portals like e-Sewa.
Limbu calls this “one server, one application” model in which you dedicate separate servers to handle different banking activities ranging from remittances and SWIFT transactions to mobile and Internet banking.
But at Laxmi Bank, most of these works are conducted through a single server, thanks to the technology called server virtualization.
The server virtualization technology allows division of one high-capacity physical server into multiple virtual servers. This is more like defragmenting a single hard disk installed in a PC to create C, D, E and F drives. But the only difference in server virtualization is that, along with storage capacity, other resources such as processor and memory are also divided. This allows work of, say, 20 or 30 different servers to be done through a single server.
Because of this technology, Limbu now has the privilege to check the payment gateway of, say, New Road branch from his office in Hattisar and allocate it more memory or storage capacity if it’s running out of these resources. Simultaneously, he can also snatch away these resources from branches, as far as Jhapa, if they aren’t making proper use of them.
“If I hadn’t resorted to virtualization I would have to purchase hardware like processor, memory and storage devices if the server was running out of these resources. And I wouldn’t have the freedom to borrow processor, memory and storage space from servers which weren’t making maximum use of these resources,” Limbu said.
What Laxmi Bank is doing isn’t completely new as it’s a technology adopted by many banks and financial institutions around the world. It’s only that Laxmi became the first national bank to deploy this technology in Nepal because of its IT savviness.
And it believes that many others will definitely follow its footsteps.
“We’re pretty confident about it because banks that are expanding their services like never before can’t afford to keep adding tower computers and other resources time and again,” Limbu said.
Currently, one of the few sectors that are witnessing rapid growth in the country is the financial sector. This growth has triggered competition among banks and financial institutions to roll out new services, like Internet and mobile banking, as quickly as possible. This, in turn, is creating pressure on the data center infrastructure.
Most banks and financial institutions are responding to the pressure by adding new servers, each of which costs around Rs 300,000. This is no doubt increasing operating expenditure and at the same time it’s also pushing up energy costs because servers, which also need coolers to prevent them from overheating, are power guzzlers.
“The answer to this predicament is server virtualization as adoption of this technology consolidates tens, if not hundreds, of units (servers) into two or three units – meaning you can save power costs and need not install too many air conditioners,” Bruce Bateman, technical sales director of Dell, told The Week on the sidelines of Asia Pacific Press Summit held by London-based NetEvents in Hong Kong recently
A market survey conducted by The Week showed that it costs less than Rs 400,000 to set up a virtualization platform that can handle works of 10 servers – which is a little more than the costs of one server of around Rs 300,000.
“And once you virtualize, the technology allows you to borrow resources like disk space and memory from other places and grow the business without buying more IT infrastructure,” Bateman said, explaining, “this is the reason why we virtualize in the first place. It’s business, and it makes commonsense.”
Another benefit of server virtualization – and desktop virtualization as well – is that it reduces the burden on the IT department, as technicians don’t have to run with bundles of software or applications every time problems crop up in each PC or server tower.
“Since the system is centralized, the IT guy can download software or application at the main server for everyone’s use, making it easier for us to respond to problems such as failure of application or system,” Bateman said.
Many banks here know about the benefits of server virtualization. Yet only few, like Nabil Bank, have started migrating to this technology.
“We’re currently exploring the option,” Banshidhar Sharma, Chief Technology Officer of Himalayan Bank, told The Week. Similar replies were made by other leading private-sector banks like Nepal Investment, and Everest.
This lukewarm response to virtualization, according to many bankers, is because many banks and financial institutions hesitate to fork out upfront investment to the tune of a few million Rupees.
But Bateman calls this typical trait of a country that has just started to modernize.
“In each country, each company moves from moving hard drives to running fiber to running three data centers with three fibers because the requirements grow,” he informed.
“Your society will change in the next 10 years,” Bateman said with certainty. “But are you ready to change along with it? What’s your plan to be there?”