Failure is no option at SwiftÆs control centre

A visit to SwiftÆs new Asia-Pacific central control centre reveals an efficient, high-tech hub that aims to be invisible.

Operation hubs can be fun. Sitting down at one of the nearly identical, open plan workstations and staring at the large LCD displays showing critical system statistics easily lulls you into daydreams of how one small deviation could critically impair millions of financial transactions. But then you snap out of it and realise the quiet room -- Swift's Asia-Pacific central control centre (CCC), which smells slightly of new car -- is actually a model of efficiency and the image of today's straight-through processing world.

While nearly every financial institution has at least one such operation, few are as critical as the CCCs operated by Swift (the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications). With existing centres in Europe and North America, the cooperative opened an Asia-Pacific CCC in Hong Kong in May to almost no fanfare -- not that it wouldn't want to celebrate a stronger IT presence in the region, but with monitoring systems that handle in excess of 14 million financial communications a day, security is understandably tight.

"We monitor the whole flow of data from any data centres, [between] data centres and from end-to-end for customers to make sure it goes smoothly," said Wim Rispens, the site manager and also Swift's manager for Asia-Pacific FIN and business applications at the CCC. "The main goal is to make sure our customers can work."

With only 30 staff, the Hong Kong centre is remarkably quiet and spacious, taking up the better part of a floor in one of the city's ubiquitous high-rises. Four teams sit at an equal number of crescent-shaped workstations facing nearly floor-to-ceiling displays of computer screens. Each team is responsible for a different Swift system -- business applications (including transactions over Swift's trade services utility and Accord for Securities), FIN services (all of the cooperative's financial messages), SwiftNet (the IP-based messaging infrastructure) and the network (customer to data centre connectivity) -- during Hong Kong's eight-hour shift from 7am to 3pm (local time) seven days a week. The rest of the day is split between the other two CCCs.

Rispens emphasises that the control centres have a different function from Swift's data centres, which house its servers. The control centres deal with the monitoring and control of Swift's systems and network, including problem management, acknowledging and resolving issues.

The Asia-Pacific centre is part of Swift's expansion in Asia. From 2006 to 2008, FIN traffic originating or ending in the region rose 40%, which prompted the cooperative to invest in additional resources and a larger physical presence in the region. In addition to the Hong Kong centre, Swift has opened a new office in Seoul and expanded its regional product offering.

"We knew that Asia-Pacific wasn't going to get smaller as a region," said Dave Smits, Asia-Pacific operations manager in charge of SwiftNet services delivery at the CCC. "The intention of the CCC is to increase our IT presence in the Asia-Pacific region, provide stronger support to our customer support centre and to cater for a "follow the sun" type of operation which will increase our efficiency and flexibility."

Hong Kong was the obvious choice for the new CCC because Swift already has a customer support centre and sales presence in the city, Smits added.

Problem management is an especially important function for the CCC and Swift prides itself on its "failure is not an option" mentality [or FNAO as Rispens repeatedly said]. The cooperative actively tries to identify and troubleshoot system issues before they affect users, with an aim to be all but "invisible".

"If we become visible, something must be very wrong," said Rispens. When asked when he last liaised with a customer, Rispens paused before he said: "None in the last year."

Each of the CCC's four teams monitors Swift's systems somewhat differently. Alan Wat of the SwiftNet operations team demonstrated how when an error occurs, indicators on the workstation's watchdog screen change from green to yellow or red, while speakers somewhere in the set-up literally emit a bark to get his attention.

The FIN message workstation also gives visual warnings -- though no barks -- but, as FIN operations team specialist Floyd Lau explained, the team constantly monitors message throughput to ensure transit time falls within the parameters the cooperative has put in place for its users.

"It's a bit of a feeling," said Dickon Biggins, lead engineer on the CCC's business applications team, referring to how the CCC's team members identify normal versus unusual transit times when it comes down to just seconds.

With the Asia-Pacific CCC up and running, Swift has no concrete plans to add operational capabilities in the region -- nor does it need any. The opening of the new centre enabled the cooperative to grow its global system monitoring staff by as much as one-third and to expand its already scalable capabilities to handle rising financial messaging flows in Asia. So for now, the centre plans to focus on its FNAO culture, or as Smits put it, on simply "staying ahead of the game".

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