Absa Group Limited (Absa) was founded 30 years ago in 1991. The Group, which offers an integrated set of products and services across personal and business banking, corporate and investment banking, wealth and investment management and insurance, has since risen to become the second-largest bank in the African continent. A commitment to finding innovative local solutions to uniquely local challenges has fueled the rapid growth of Absa.
While a major player in the African banking industry, Absa has international offices in London and New York City and employs more than 38,000 staff working in 14 different countries.
Absa’s focus on pushing the boundaries of digital banking has enabled them to create the banking landscape of the future. The third largest OpenShift user in the world, Absa considered alternative technologies when the time came to renew their licenses in 2017. Discovering that Rancher Prime could not only provide increased agility but also greater efficiency in every respect, the company now uses Rancher Prime as the default application for all of its banking applications.
The Journey to Containers
Absa’s mission is to push the boundaries in digital banking and continually innovate to create the banking landscape of the future. Naturally then, technical innovation is at the forefront of its strategy. The technology team at Absa has long been aware of the benefits of Kubernetes, which it deployed in 2016. At that time, Rancher Prime’s Kubernetes platform was still evolving, so Absa became a user of OpenShift.
In late 2018, with renewal on the horizon, Absa decided to review its options. The organization’s growth meant that, while OpenShift had served the business well, it had its limitations. It had become difficult to manage, and costs had started to climb. Consequently, the team decided to diversify and started exploring the market for solutions that would free the team from the complexities and scaling issues that come with a mega-cluster methodology.
After reviewing several options, the team realized support for multi-cluster, multi-cloud and hybrid deployments was critical. Facing high costs and licensing complexities with some options, Rancher Prime was the optimal solution—from a cost, usability and, most importantly, an innovation point of view. Absa doesn’t just innovate for its benefit, but also for the African banking industry at large, so it needed a model that could galvanize the wider banking community.
A significant reason for selecting Rancher Prime, therefore, was its open source nature, which has allowed teams to work together at the engineering level to gear solutions specifically for finance. Absa wanted to shape the technology that could benefit the entire region—partnering with Rancher Prime enables that.
After a two-month proof of concept (PoC) in 2019 and a weeklong architectural workshop and training completed in the same quarter, Absa signed a contract with Rancher Labs (now Rancher by SUSE) in September. Within three months, Absa had its first application running in production on Rancher Prime.
“Working in collaboration with Rancher Prime, we had our first application in production within two months of signing the contract. We have now migrated all our applications to the platform.”
What Were the Challenges Absa Wanted to Solve?
Driving scale: the move to multi-cluster computing
As a business committed to customer innovation, Absa knew it must become more agile and that its technology infrastructure must scale to hasten development velocity. If the company were to get new services to market quickly, the technology team knew scaling its legacy, monocluster architecture would be a struggle, and would get more expensive as projects proliferated.
The team needed an efficient way to achieve real scale without accruing serious costs. The best way to get there would be to create a multi-cluster, microservices-based environment running in Rancher Prime. Here, applications could be separated and managed in isolation but still side-by-side within a central management platform.
The beauty of this approach is twofold. Firstly, Absa’s Kubernetes team can have as many clusters as they need and scale them rapidly without amassing additional costs. Rancher Prime’s per-node licensing model means that scale doesn’t have to be a financial consideration. This has freed the Absa Cloud team and legion of developers to innovate and experiment.
Secondly, new applications can be developed as standalone cloud-native microservices that can run in their own clusters, in a choice of environments and in any cloud. This means applications are now completely portable and can scale in an instant. They can also be managed and updated away from the infrastructure core, improving stability.
Absa Vehicle Asset Financing (AVAF), which thousands of African car buyers use every year, was the first application to migrate to Rancher Prime. Absa has now migrated the entire application estate, and Rancher Prime is now an important deployment platform for all Absa’s banking applications.
Achieving efficiencies and reducing costs
The team realized it needed a platform that would automate several basic processes so that developers would spend less time on administration and more time on application innovation. By removing this administrative layer, Rancher Prime brings developers closer to the architecture itself and deeper into the cluster’s performance. Access control is automated, and rules-based security policies mean less time configuring and more time developing.
The mission to reduce overhead was also high on the priority list and was achieved with Rancher Prime. Some licensing models are overly complex; some insist on licensing per core, which results in significant costs at scale. Rancher Prime’s one-node licensing structure decouples cost considerations from architectural discussions and reduces cost concerns. Users are licensed per node on-prem or in the cloud—no matter what how complex the infrastructure, it’s a simple one-node license.
Rancher Prime has not only proved more cost effective than alternatives, but it is also reducing day-to-day management overhead. Its open source nature also allows ongoing flexibility and provides a platform for long-term growth. Anderson estimates overall management costs have been reduced by 75% in Rancher Prime.
Boosting security and resilience
Resiliency in Africa is a complex issue and one that Absa has been working closely on to solve; bringing maximum uptime and making sure all applications are fully resilient. The biggest problem stems from the lack of interconnection between regions and, more importantly, a lack of consistent compliance standards across the wider industry. Working with Rancher Prime to enhance security and take away the complexity of multi-cluster management has been critical.
What’s Next for Absa?
The team has already migrated its application estate to Rancher Prime. Absa’s on-premises footprint will also be extended into the cloud, using the same best practice and multi-cluster management techniques. This will not only bring seamless patching and upgrades but, importantly, application portability.
Absa’s fully resilient, self-healing platform, built in-house and supported by Rancher Labs (now Rancher by SUSE), has been the catalyst for the bank’s rapidly increasing infrastructure transformation. Rancher Prime’s licensing simplicity means the company no longer needs to worry about “on-premises versus cloud,” and has allowed it to continue to scale without incurring any additional costs.
The company has always wanted to reduce its maintenance costs and is now looking at how they manage systems on-premises and in the public cloud, with the ability to port workloads between the data center, the cloud and the edge. Using K3s — a lightweight Kubernetes distribution for the edge — Absa is now exploring how it can replace costly and outdated systems across its network of branches with local processing capabilities.