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Author's profile photo Andrea Diederichs

Zero Downtime: Mission Accomplished

Upgrade without any downtime? SAP’s banking customer ATB Financial proved that it can be done.

“The easy stuff is for the other customers,” sums up ATB Financial’s attitude as it opted to break new ground and become the first SAP customer to embrace a new zero downtime upgrade method. The topic of zero downtime also made a huge splash in 2014, when one of the winning teams for the prestigious Hasso Plattner Founders’ Award made this their goal.

ATB Financial’s reasons for taking this bold step were compelling. In today’s business world, downtime is no longer an option. Particularly so in the banking sector, where customers expect to be able to perform transactions at ATMs and online around the clock. “If we’re going to be competitive in the financial industry, we have to be able to support this,” explains Cathy Pasula-Jones, Vice President, Enterprise Services at ATB.

All of the standard options the SAP MaxAttention team presented to minimise upgrade downtime were unacceptable to ATB as they all incurred business downtime in one form or another. The ball was back with SAP to determine an acceptable solution and this is where the team proposed the zero downtime method. Both sides agreed to proceed, but with caution – as there was not yet a single reference customer for this novel approach. “For many years, the standard upgrade method had not been questioned,” notes SAP Solution Architect Chris Lewis. “It had been adapted and optimized, but the focus had always been to reduce times for various upgrade elements. To actually get to zero though, you have to change the whole order of doing things. You have to change your preconceptions. Start with a clean slate.”

It was the prospect of being able to solve the downtime issue once and for all that finally tipped the scales. Cathy explains why. “If you don’t want to have a twelve-hour outage, what is the option? You don’t have one. That’s ultimately why our leadership was all in to try zero downtime.” Having crossed the first hurdle, the SAP team then faced a second. “The customer set the bar high,” recalls Chris. “They needed us to prove that every transaction would be processed within four seconds during the upgrade. That’s the entire roundtrip, from, say, the card swipe through the network to the SAP system and back again.” Exceeding this limit would lead to a third-party taking over requests and exposing the bank to certain fraud risks.

Despite some jangling nerves in the run-up to the live upgrade on March 8, everything went “completely like clockwork”, says SAP Chief Support Architect Mariusz Debowski. “We showed that the seemingly impossible is feasible after all.” SAP Service Architect Zawisza Pierzchalski has been involved in shaping the zero downtime concept from the get-go. “We spent several years working on our idea without really knowing whether it could ever become reality.” A born optimist, Zawisza was nevertheless convinced that the breakthrough would happen at ATB. And he’s certain of one thing, “If we’d allowed doubts to creep in, we’d never have achieved what we did!”

According to Dan Earl-Gray, SAP Engineering Architect, “The customer’s investment in this project was worth every penny. The measure of our success is that nobody even noticed that something was happening.” The upgrade went smoothly and without disruption to customers ‒ an invaluable competitive advantage in ATB’s eyes.

The SAP team members praise the excellent collaboration with the customer. “The project required both sides to be bold, because we were trying something that hadn’t been tried before,” says Chris. Winning the trust of the customer’s IT department and getting all the project stakeholders on board was therefore critical. “The human factor is immensely important in a project like this,” adds Zawisza.

For Mariusz, this project confirms the need for SAP to “listen to its customers and their requirements”. In his view, an “it-can’t-be-done” response is simply not good enough.

The zero downtime upgrade was executed as a co-innovation project between SAP MaxAttention and ATB Financial. If Cathy Pasula-Jones had her way, zero downtime would be built into SAP’s base product. She’ll be delighted to know that SAP Development is already well on its way to a promising procedure known as the Zero Downtime Option.

Alberta Treasury Branches Financial (ATB)

  • Over 75 years in business
  • Assets of C$43.1 billion
  • More than 5,000 employees
  • More than 697,000 customers
  • 242 Alberta communities
  • 130 agencies and 172 branches
  • 364 days per year Customer Care Center
  • SAP Core Banking Solution

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