How Automation Widened the Processing Window at Heartland Financial
Overnight processing for a bank holding company can be time-consuming and repetitive. Especially if you have to do the same tasks nine different times and go by your best guess for when a process will wrap up on one platform before a dependent process starts on another when there's no time to waste.
Charles Bertsch, Computer Operations Manager at Heartland Financial, knew that the company had big plans for growth in the coming years. He also knew that his team simply would not have time to do processing for more than nine banks, if done manually and sequentially, in a single night. Hear in this audio clip how IT process automation software made all the difference for his team.
Chuck Losinski: Why don’t we just start out the conversation by you telling us a little bit about Heartland Financial.
Charles Bertsch: Sure. Heartland Financial is a bank holding company. We’re currently a little over $6 billion in assets. We have nine community banks stretched across the Midwest and the West. We do centralized processing for those banks out of our main data center here in Dubuque, Iowa.
CL: On your IBM i, what are the primary applications you have running there for your bank?
CL: I see you’re also running the Deliver Now tool.
CB: Yeah. We’ve been running RJS for several years, just like the HelpSystems products, so it was nice to see that they ended up merging with you guys.
CL: Tell me, how did you first hear about the various options that we have for automating IBM i operations?
CB: I started here at Heartland back in 1999. I was lucky enough to go to the COMMON user group the first year. Lots of vendor presentations out there and HelpSystems was one of them. I just started watching your products. We were a smaller shop back then, but we ended up doing three or four different product demos over the years until we finally got big enough that we felt we needed some of the automation that you guys brought to the table.
CL: What sort of automation tasks do you have Robot doing for you?
CB: We started out primarily with Robot Schedule. As we continue to grow here at Heartland, we process for the nine independent banks, so a lot of the processes and tasks that we do we would do nine different times. It was really repetitive for us.
When we first started out, we started out on our primary partition with just Robot Schedule. But as we continued to grow, so did our test partition. We went from a single partition shop to two test partitions and then a training partition. So, with the HelpSystems products, we were able to expand that out to our other partitions and automate a number of the testing tasks that we needed to do. That also allowed us to do more testing of the applications in our test environment before we moved them straight to production.
CL: I understand that you’re also using Robot and the enterprise module that reaches out to Windows to coordinate the various extracts you have going on.
CB: That was really the second step for us after implementing Robot Schedule. Before, the iSeries scheduler was fairly robust—it didn’t have quite the scheduling capabilities that your product does, but it did alright for us.
Where we really struggled was trying to do extracts out of the iSeries, which ran fairly stable, but then finish up and run a PC transfer of those files to do another task. The Windows schedulers were just so temperamental. Any time you changed a password on the Windows side or a network drive couldn’t connect or a Windows server was down, it just made the process very difficult.
The other thing that we had to do was work out the timing issue. We had to run those tasks independently. We would kick off the iSeries jobs, so those would run. Then, we would figure that it should take half an hour to finish up and then we would set a time to run the Windows jobs. Well, that works great about 80 percent of the time, unless you need to adjust your workflow. Then we would have all kinds of issues making sure things got kicked off in sequence.
With going to Robot Schedule Enterprise, it’s been great for us because we can run the iSeries job and then immediately have it react and run the PC transfers job on one of our Windows boxes. That was just the biggest plus that I’ve seen with the software. It runs so well—it runs those tasks in the Windows environment so well that our Windows application administrators have started using it for Windows tasks exclusively as well. So that’s great to see.
CL: Wow, that’s awesome. So, you’ve been able to eliminate that dead time between when the IBM i process finishes and the Windows tasks kicks off—you just make those completely reactive.
CB: Right. It seems like we have more and more third-party systems that we need to send extracts to. There’s no way that we could watch those independently. I looked to today and we have over 300 daily tasks that we run within Robot. Just the ability to make that transition smooth where the iSeries jobs run followed by the Windows job and in some cases back to another iSeries job, it’s just been great for us.
CL: Just like HelpSystems, your business is growing. Talk to us a little bit about how automation has improved your processing as you’ve grown.
CB: Like I mentioned, we process independently for the nine different banks. It used to be, back in the old days, that we had to process for one bank and then process for the second bank when that one completed. It became a fairly long process for our operators at night.
With some of the new tape technology—being able to go to virtual tape—and then being able to script a number of those backups and nightly batch processing, we now run a number of those banks at the same time to help us increase that window that we have to run the other unattended processes overnight. That’s really been key for us as we continue to grow.
Our goal here at Heartland has been to double in size every three to five years, so as we look forward to the growth that we’re going to have down the road, we really need to have as many tasks and operations automated as possible. I think, with Robot, we have the tools in place to do that.
CL: Gotcha. So, you’ve got some concurrent or parallel processes going on with your nightly processing.
CB: Right. And then the other area that we really struggled with would be holidays. With the regular job scheduler, you can set up tasks to run, but they didn’t really have the calendar function that you guys have.
It’s easy to say, “Here’s a holiday, so exclude any jobs that run on the holiday.” But in our processing environment, that holiday can carry over until the day after the holiday, so we really need some of those special scheduling tasks to be able to handle things like that, to know, “Hey, don’t run this on a day following the holiday in this situation for this particular job.”
We’re able to set up custom calendars then and assign specific jobs to either follow the calendar that excludes the job or the day following the holiday. That’s really been key for us. And just coming off of Columbus Day and yesterday as well, everything went smoothly with that, so that’s great to see.
CL: Good! So, we talked a little bit about workload automation. Now, let’s talk about monitoring. How do you use the Robot monitoring solution in your daily operation?
CB: Being a financial institution, it seems like it’s audit season for us constantly. We always have a number of different auditors coming in and looking at our processes and procedures. One of the things that they really like to see are the alerting capabilities. Particularly with the monitoring through Robot Console, we can have email messages come out to us if there’s critical hardware issues, like if we lose a disk drive. We don’t have to have somebody monitoring the console messages constantly to pick that up. We can have it go out to an email distribution list that goes to my entire team and we’re notified immediately of any issues.
We also go through and monitor mission-critical systems. For example, we have real-time connection into our ATMs that we have to have up 24/7. We’ve been able to key off specific error messages for that application so that we know if it goes down momentarily. We have some jobs that run in the background that try to autocorrect and bring that system back up, but then we can monitor to see if it, in fact, did come back up or if we need to have our operators take any other manual intervention. That’s been really great for us.
The other piece that we do quite a bit on is, unfortunately, our nightly process. It doesn’t create a detailed report of all our backups to the detail level that auditors would like to see. The way that we’ve kind of gotten around that is we monitor the history log for specific backup messages that show that each stage of our bank backups at night actually finished properly. We have that go out through Robot in email as well. When I walk in first thing in the morning, we can take a look at the messages and see that these specific backups completed properly.
CL: Kind of a general question: what’s your favorite feature of Robot?
CB: I would have to say it’s probably your dashboards and the Schedule Activity Monitor that’s built into Robot Schedule. The first thing our operators do when they come in each morning is bring up that activity monitor to see if any of our jobs stalled out or if they have to restart any jobs. It’s kind of neat to pull that up and be able to scroll down through all the green checkmarks that show each one of those unattended jobs completed properly.
CL: Got it. So, the SAM feature and the graphical user interface. Awesome. Very nice. Well, I thank you for your time today, Charles. Thanks for being such a great customer. We’ll talk to you again real soon.
CB: Alright, thanks Chuck.
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