Inside Barclays and CommBank's open source collaboration

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Inside Barclays and CommBank's open source collaboration

Using people power to drive down the costs of big data analytics.

First they poached Commonwealth Bank’s CIO, and now global banking giant Barclays is coming for the Aussie bank’s software.

Visiting Australia last week to speak at the UTS big data summit, Barclays’ global chief data officer Usama Fayyad revealed he is working with CommBank to tee up a cross-border partnership that will see the London-based company use open source data analytics tools developed by internal CBA coders.

Fayyad told iTnews it was a chance meeting with then CBA CIO Michael Harte – who had flown to Barclays’ London HQ to interview for their top tech job – that set the wheels in motion for a software development collaboration that will see Barclays take lessons from its Australian counterpart.

For the past three years, CBA’s information strategy team under Andrew Kerr has been diligently working away at an extract, transform, load (ETL) tool that it can run on top of Hadoop to exploit its vast data sets.

ETL represents an expensive headache for big financial institutions, Fayyad said.

The complex process behind pulling useful data out of often vast and unstructured warehouses means organisations are forced to pay top dollar for licences before they can access their own information.

“If I want to access a new data source in my bank, I might have to pay half a million pounds in licensing fees,” he said. “The vendors are abusing the banks in terms of licensing prices.”

This is why he has welcomed the CBA project with open arms, and is actively jumping on board – and bringing his considerable IT resources with him - to make “the ecosystem healthier by introducing cost pressure”.

His meeting with Harte put Fayyad in touch with Andrew Kerr and his team, who after two or three years working on the Hadoop-based tools decided to submit it to the open source community.

Fayyad brought over five members of his team in July to meet with the Australians.

“[CBA] are being careful on their side. They want to know that whoever comes in is committed to following the methodology," he said.

“But we decided at the end of it that the partnership makes sense, so we are starting the collaboration now.”

He said admired the courage behind the bank's move.

“I was impressed, I must say, with where CBA was compared to other banks. In my opinion they were five years to a decade ahead in their thinking.

“For most banks this is not the normal way to approach a problem. They hardly ever think about open source, and if they do they think about it as consumers not contributors."

Despite the resources poured into the development, however, the Barclays CDO said the open source decision made sense for CommBank.

“The whole area of ETL is not really viewed as competitive between banks,” he said.

“People go open source, firstly as a way to give their developers visibility in the community, and also to ensure that what they're coming up with is high quality. Banks in particular face a lot of problems if they have developers of a low quality, because it is very rare that someone will be looking over what they do.

“They could be using junk code without even knowing it. But if you are using open source then people are looking over this all the time. I think of it as peer review, like in the academic system.” 

Another benefit to CBA from the partnership will be the contribution that Barclays’ thousands-strong IT workforce can bring to the expansion and maintenance of what could otherwise be an expensive ongoing project.

But Fayyad warned against thinking CBA’s relatively small size – the bank serves roughly 8.5 million customers compared to Barclays 33 million – had any impact on the level at which the open source ETL team is performing.

“Because CBA have been at this longer, we would probably benefit initially more than they would," he said.

“They are clearly the leader in terms of these sorts of contributions…I think if this project takes off I think CBA will have a worldwide impact on the industry.

“I am very interested in making sure the whole financial services community benefits from it.” 

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