The incident at Ulster Bank highlights problems relating to the complexity of production computer systems, issues from cutting back key staff in response to difficult economic times, and (perhaps) the risk of outsourcing mission-critical functions. If you read the various reports, the cause of the massive prolonged operational failure could be for any or all of these reasons.
But to me, the most amazing aspect of the Ulster Bank’s systems failure is that it received so little publicity outside Northern Ireland and the U.K. Here we have one of the biggest computer system failures on record, apparently affecting some 600,000 individuals and likely costing the bank in excess of $100 million, and few beyond the bank’s customers, a few politicians (including, it should be noted, UK prime minister, David Cameron) and regulators, and couple of reporters for Irish news organizations and the BBC, seem to have been concerned about it.
I have worked in the trenches, with responsibility for financial firm’s batch production computer systems, and I know how precarious these systems can be and how dependent they are for their smooth operation on one or two key individuals who know how to recover when these systems fail, which they do, to some extent, practically every night. In some ways, it is incredible that these legacy systems, many more than 30 years old, are kept running and incidents such as occurred at Ulster Bank don’t happen more often. It is a testimonial to the ability and dedication of key IT and operational staff at many financial institutions that these critical systems function as well as they do.