IBM MQ Review

Using the Appliance has enabled us to consolidate servers and licenses

What is our primary use case?

Our use cases include ATM transactions where a customer, for example, inquires about balances. Transactions go from an ATM at a branch, using a Java application to take the information, and it connects into our mainframe, gets the balances, and goes back. 

We also use it for when customers go online using the internet itself for things like pre-approved home loans. We take the customers' information from the front-end and pop it into MQ to look up the customer's data in the bank itself — all of the databases — and then come back to the customer. 

It is also used in our mobile banking. MQ is connected to SAP in the background. MQ is in between, passing information to SAP and SAP will give the reply back on the mobile banking app, like when a customer asks for a one-time password.

How has it helped my organization?

We initially went with a single server or two servers. We used a lot of the mainframe and we used it on the one server. Then we realized that we were down to a single point of failure. What we did was we enabled something called queue sharing where you have multiple landing platforms, which lets you execute multiple applications in the background. And we're now able to use our HA failover quite extensively. It previously required one server to be down and there would be an effect on customer business. Now it requires at least three servers to be down before we start feeling the workload. And even then, we're hardly ever down because we have now spread the load using the queue shared clusters.

In terms of the solution helping to reduce the cost of integration, we're using what is called the MQ Appliance. Because the appliance connects multiple solutions in our bank to this platform, we don't need to procure more licenses or more servers or more infrastructure. So at the moment, we're using a very cost-effective model, compared to two to three years ago, which is when we started to consolidate servers. We had about 400 servers but we've reduced their number by moving them to the appliance. We've consolidated all of those server licenses and server infrastructures.

For example, we took a server that was front-end, using Java, and connected to the mainframe. We have that entire server's application queue, entry queue, and all the objects moved onto the appliance. And there is no cost to it. It's just a box. There's no operating system on it. We have MQ on it and MQ then connects things to the rest of the bank, so we save on the infrastructure, on server licenses, and MQ licenses. We've created a setup like that a few times already in our bank.

This process of integration has saved us a lot of time. Previously our projects would take at least three to four weeks. Now, once we have firewalls and security in place, and once we have an acceptable solution design in front of us, they take three to four days. From the time we design the solution until things are connected to the appliance, it takes a week. It's only fast because most of it is scripted. It's almost like a container.

What is most valuable?

What we find most valuable is the fact that we can decouple it from the application. If one side is down, but someone in the bank is serving a customer and needs to connect to an account, he can put in the information and wait. When the remote system comes up and connects, we can push messages with the push function. So what is quite useful is the asynchronous function which means we don't lose everything in the bank. Although we use a lot of things synchronously, asynch is the best thing so that no banking information is ever lost, even when the network goes down and comes up.

We can also expand it across many servers with the cluster, using load balancing and failover. We use that extensively as well. The load balancing works absolutely wonderfully.

Overall, it makes us very flexible in the architecture we can use at the moment. When someone comes to us and says, "I need ABC," we can put together the correct solution for him with all our flexibility.

We use Red Hat from a server point of view. With our Linux box, MQ is on the box itself. We use that quite extensively as well. Inside of that, we find the shared HA function quite useful. It allows us to do HA really quickly, compared to how things were before.

What needs improvement?

At the moment we're very limited in the way we can interface with the cloud. 

For how long have I used the solution?

I have been using it for 20 years now. I've been at the bank for 17 years and I used it before that as well.

What do I think about the stability of the solution?

The stability of the solution is very good. I would give it a nine out of 10. The main features are its reliability and availability and, as a messaging platform, it's very good in those areas.

What do I think about the scalability of the solution?

The scalability is the one area where IBM has fallen behind. As much as it is used, there is a limit to the number of people who are skilled in MQ. That is definitely an issue. Places have kept their MQ-skilled people and other places have really struggled to get MQ skills. It's not a widely-known skillset.

In terms of the number of business areas using it in our bank, there are about 15. A lot of the major ones use it, such as credit, operations/finance, home loans, and ATMs. 

How are customer service and technical support?

The bank has been very good in getting good technical resources to help us. There is a specific couple of people in IBM who know our architecture itself. We have what is called a value-add program where, when we have a problem or a service request, it will go through IBM but it will automatically land in the box of one of the experts who knows our architecture very well. We reach the same two people each time. We don't have to explain things to them.

Which solution did I use previously and why did I switch?

We did not have a previous solution. Early on, we didn't have many options to choose from. A procurement person came along and told us that this is the best solution for us.

How was the initial setup?

The setup was very complex in the beginning: how we had to put it in, how we had to tune it, and how we had to fix it. There were so many parameters. It wasn't just a simple drop-in, deploy, and go. In addition, because certain applications work in a certain manner, it required a lot of tuning.

My team, on average, has 10 years of experience on MQ so at this stage we've come to the point where we can tune it fairly quickly. So while the initial setup wasn't simple and quick, it has become very quick.

The initial setup took us several weeks, if not a few months. We had to get IBM to help with things in the beginning. We had system issues then, but it has been stable since then.

What about the implementation team?

The IBM consultants we worked with were very good.

Which other solutions did I evaluate?

MQ's features are very extensive compared to SQS on Amazon or messaging from Microsoft. Those solutions have basic features in there. They say, "This is what 90 percent of the use cases will use," whereas MQ is very robust in the way it's set up, in the way it works, and in the way it can be tuned. You have a lot of connections where you can connect thousands of users to the bank and thousands out of the bank as well.

It is definitely way ahead of all the other messaging platforms. It's like the "BMW" or "Mercedes" of messaging. The others will still do the work, but they're fairly average in what they do. They're very basic compared to what we do. Because we are a major bank, we have many different platforms and many languages, so we use it very extensively.

What other advice do I have?

You must be careful in that it must fit what you want it to do. A few years ago, we had a silo approach where everybody had their own IBM MQ and their own application support with their own teams. That got out of control. In the last few years we realized that you need to be careful about the deployment model you're using. And you need to make sure it's used for the proper use cases.

That's really the biggest lesson I've learned from using IBM MQ: You need to be very sure about what you want it to do.

I would advise that you talk to someone who knows about the solution and who is not biased. Set up a call with someone like me to look at the solution before you decide to go down this path and, similarly, before you decide to throw it out. Talk to someone who has at least seven years of experience with it and who can give you an unbiased opinion about how it works, and then make up your mind. People have come to us and we have said, "Based on what you are doing, we don't think MQ is the best solution for you. You should be looking at other solutions." And other times, we'll tell them that this is the perfect solution. 

The way MQ works is very good from a messaging point of view. There is very little that needs improving. MQ is very flexible and very tunable. We use it to transport hundreds of thousands of messages every day with absolutely no problems.

At the moment the solution is on-premise. But in the last two years, the bank has decided that it needs to go with the public cloud. So in the last two years, most of our development has gone towards decoupling MQ because a lot of the vendor applications were on the box where MQ was. We're working on the solution and decoupling everything so we can push toward the cloud itself. The solution's built-in connectors are more applicable to when we talk about cloud solutions. 

As for containerization, eventually we will go for it but, at the moment, we don't use it. It's difficult to work on a mainframe because of the way it's set up. But it's definitely something the guys will be using when we look at the Unix servers and other boxes.

For deployment and maintenance we have a team of eight people. We have three people on the mainframe and another three to four people for the appliance. They work with each other as well. On the Unix solution, which includes Linux, AIX, etc., we have another team of four, but all these teams overlap. The average upgrade won't take less than two people, but on the Unix box, upgrades are straightforward and someone can do it on his own.

Which deployment model are you using for this solution?

**Disclosure: I am a real user, and this review is based on my own experience and opinions.
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