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Banks Starting to Look to Microsoft Vista

Microsoft's latest operating system offers banks stronger security and richer search functions.

In February, Microsoft launched its much-anticipated Vista operating system (OS). According to the company, the successor to Windows XP sports several new features that are designed to increase productivity for Microsoft's clients -- including, of course, banks.

"XP [which was released in 2001] is pretty widely deployed in banks, from the lending side to product management, even in the back office," says Greg Haislip, managing director, banking, at Microsoft. "Vista will take over this role," he contends. However, there isn't a "financial services" version of Vista per se, Haislip notes, adding that Vista is a horizontal platform common across Microsoft's footprint.

Still, there are certain aspects of the OS that bankers can exploit to help improve their operations, specifically around security, mobile computing and search. For example, baked into Vista is encryption technology that leverages Microsoft's BitLocker solution. The OS can store centralized keys so users won't need to rebuild them if the data or hardware is compromised.

Further, Vista includes a new search feature that allows users to search different types of media on their computers. "Finding information fast is vital to banks," states Haislip. "This is true for lending officers, relationship managers, wealth managers and call centers."

Another of Vista's capabilities that can be exploited by bankers is on-demand networking for mobile workers. "Vista has P2P networking capability so you can access information from anywhere. This is great for private bankers, for example," Haislip states. "We're building a lot of these things into the core operating system so clients don't have to rely on third parties."

Microsoft also offers a Vista desktop optimization pack that allows users to virtualize applications. "This can be used, for example, on an archaic teller system or an internal system based on an older version of ACT," explains Microsoft's Marley Gray, technical architect, banking. "You can run the new and the old applications in parallel to help lower your risk when you migrate completely to the new version."

The Vista Plunge

Doubts have been expressed about the extent to which Vista is ready for prime time, however. Some industry analysts, such as Gartner (Stamford, Conn.), say it will take at least a year of testing before most banks are able to switch to the new OS, mainly due to issues around compatibility of Vista with their applications and whether their vendors' applications can support Vista.

Therefore, expect a gradual adoption of Vista, says IDC (Framingham, Mass.). According to a report from the firm, during 2007, "Windows Vista Business and Windows Vista Enterprise will account for 35 percent of the new Windows client operating environments deployed by business users." The following year, the study says, this figure will grow to 80 percent for new deployments.

Some organizations, however, have already taken the Vista plunge. The Dalles, Ore.-based Columbia River Bank ($1 billion in assets), for example, was invited into Microsoft's technology adoption program for Vista and began beta-testing the OS in February 2006. It started upgrading its systems to the nonbeta version in December, according to Nathan Church, VP and IT manager at Columbia River.

"The main reason we went with Vista was that it has a lot of security built into it that we wanted to implement -- encryption, BitLocker, the ability to lock down your desktop," explains Church. "Otherwise, we would have had to look to third parties for this."

Vista's compatibility with its bank-specific systems also was of particular concern to Columbia River, Church adds. "One of the reasons we looked at Vista so early was to see if it was compatible with our systems," he explains. "We were able to see where any glitches were early on. Through the entire [beta] process, we were able to communicate with the vendors to fix these things."

Church also cites Vista's enhanced search capability and new mobility features as efficiency-boosters. "It just allows better management in a notebook environment," he asserts.

"Every single PC will be upgraded to [Vista] -- desktops and notebooks. This includes our call center, front line, tellers, loan officers, private bankers, administrative staff and executives," Church continues. "There are almost 500 computers throughout the bank," he says, adding that the migration should be completed by May.

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