Bank branches disappear as online money tree grows

Old bank branch for sale.

A quarter of Ulster Bank’s transactions are conducted on a mobile device today, compared with less than one percent just two years ago, and only 16 percent of transactions are conducted in brick-and-mortar locations, reports the Belfast Telegraph. As a result, bank branches are closing as customers demand immediate transactions rather than long lines for teller service. While the shift to virtual growth offers high returns with lower capital investment, banks now face the challenge of increased consumer expectations.

Branching out

Though online banking is on the rise, not all account holders are pleased. Pew Research reports that 51 percent of U.S. adults bank online and 32 percent do so on their mobile phones, and according to the Wall Street Journal, U.S. financial institutions shut the doors of over 2,000 bank branches in 2012. TCF National Bank of Wayzata, Minn., plans to close 37 supermarket branches this year, while the 1,024 residents of Athens, Mich., are without a bank for the first time in over 75 years after their local Southern Michigan Bank and Trust closed in 2011. Online banking critics argue that although closing small-town branches is cost-effective given current in-person customer volumes, it can also negatively impact account holders who don’t have a mobile device or reliable broadband access.

While banks must convince disenfranchised retail customers that online banking offers a viable alternative to bank branches, tellers, and ATMs, they must also address security problems. The move to convenient virtual transactions, including the ability to scan and deposit checks or log into accounts from anywhere, presents unique challenges. Scanned checks, for example, might be deposited online into one account and then deposited physically to another, allowing criminals to “double dip.”

According to a recent American Banker article, online banking scams are difficult for customers to detect — as a result, banks need to develop a “code of conduct” that clearly spells out how they will get in contact with account holders and what kind of security measures will be put into place to protect users against fraudulent transactions. One option is to upgrade banking websites so they include support for technologies such as HTTPS Strict Transport Security, which allows bank servers to tell Internet browsers that any connection between the two should be encrypted. If it’s not, an attack is likely taking place.

Social banking

Along with boosting customer confidence, banks also need to look for ways to make access easier. According to Live Mint, social media-enabled banking is on the rise in India, where at least two private banks now allow users access to banking functions via social media.

In September 2013, ICICI Bank gave consumers the ability to transfer money using a Facebook-based application, and in March 2014, Kotak Mahindra Bank made it possible for customers to open new accounts and access basic bank transactions using their Facebook log-in credentials. The bank estimates that in the next three to five years, 30 percent to 40 percent of all new accounts will be opened using social media. In the first year of service, it expects to double the number of online-created accounts.

Nitin Chugh of HDFC Bank notes that in addition to improved account holder access, financial institutions also benefit from lower costs. He estimates that the total cost of online alternatives are 25 percent to 30 percent lower than transaction costs, since there is no paperwork and no additional costs such as couriers or excess man-hours.

Backing the banks

Of course, the move away from physical bank branches to online transactions bolstered by intelligent security measures and accessed via social media falls flat if banks can’t keep up with consumer demand. For example, Facebook claims to have over a billion users worldwide, while Twitter has more than 240 million active accounts. Coupled with the hundreds of millions of adults in the United States who bank using “traditional” Web portals or mobile applications, it is critical for banks to deliver content on demand and in real time. Just like security, speed is essential for the growth of online banking.

Banks face two challenges. First, they need a way to securely authenticate user log-ins without sacrificing speed, no matter whether an account holder is logging in from down the street or across the globe. In addition, banks must be able to call up account information and transaction services on demand — if made to wait more than a few minutes, consumers may lose faith in a bank’s ability to provide secure services and will take their business elsewhere.

To effectively cope with the rise of online and social media banking, financial institutions are well-served by partnering with reliable, global content delivery networks (CDNs), which take the burden off local servers and ensure speedy response times from anywhere in the world.

As branches close across the country and banks respond to user demand for better online services, they require a combination of robust security, easy access, and smooth content delivery.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Survey: Insurance companies falling behind in digital strategy

Digital strategy

Insurance companies underutilize mobile in their digital strategy, with only 47 percent providing information about their company or products and 23 percent enabling customers to submit and process claims online or via a mobile device.

Most insurance companies are not embracing digital technology, the EY Global Insurance Digital Survey 2013 finds. Of the more than 100 insurance companies surveyed on digital strategy and readiness, 79 percent say that they are “still learning to use digital capabilities” and do not see themselves as leaders in the digital world. A large portion of the industry is in danger of losing out to newer companies that are adopting a robust technological approach to engage their customers.

If the insurance industry wants to meet consumer expectations — which include engaging customers on social media and content delivery via mobile applications — top companies need to invest in a digital strategy. Nearly 70 percent of companies surveyed spend less than 10 percent of the business and IT development budget on digital. Building a long-term business case for investment in digital implementation is the first step toward progressing into the technological landscape.

According to EY, the second step is to build an infrastructure for analytics. Segmentation, customer data, and predictive modeling were the skill sets businesses reported wanting to improve upon the most. To make the most of a digital investment, companies need to utilize analytics to take advantage of every opportunity provided by these new technologies. For example, a content delivery network (CDN) with performance reporting and user demographic information could be leveraged to tailor product recommendations to consumer preferences.

The ultimate goal is to improve communications with customers and personalize the experience so insurance companies can attract new, digitally savvy consumers while retaining their current base. Customer satisfaction rises with quality and frequency of contact, but nearly two-thirds of customers claim they receive one or fewer annual contacts from their insurer.

Digital technology is a cost-effective way to keep in contact with a customer base, increasing touchpoints, and cross-selling and up-selling opportunities. By providing superior content delivery and customized, on-demand communication such as live, 24/7 online help desks, insurance providers could increase satisfaction rates and decrease the chances that customers will switch to another provider.

Any insurance provider looking to invest in a long-term digital strategy will have to be careful to deliver the best possible digital experience upon its implementation. A lackluster site with lagging download speeds, unreachable content, and broken mobile applications will hurt rather than help customer retention. Partnering with a high-performance CDN with on-demand, instantly scalable bandwidth is one way to ensure the digital customer experience runs smoothly both upon delivery and in the future.

Photo credit: morgueFile

Online multiplayer games require top-notch performance

World of Warcraft

World of Warcraft at a gaming convention.

Online multiplayer games are continuing to grow in popularity. The massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) genre drives this trend with millions of gamers active in these virtual worlds, typified by titles such as World of Warcraft and Star Wars: The Old Republic. In fact, this gaming genre has become a billion-dollar industry because of the monthly subscription fees paid by those taking part in these enthralling experiences.

Game developers hoping to tap into this billion-dollar market must understand that building these virtual universes requires excellent storytelling, compelling graphics, and a technical back end capable of seamlessly handling millions of users. Considering the connected nature of this specialized niche within the overall gaming community, expect any news about downtime or streaming hiccups to go viral instantaneously!

Mobile gaming a growing trend in the MMORPG community

While MMORPGs saw their genesis on the desktop platform, in recent years, mobile-compatible versions of these games have hit the market. In fact, a MMORPG for children, School of Dragons, was recently released on the Android platform after first garnering popularity on Facebook and iOS. In addition to great performance, gamers are now expecting to be able to enjoy online multiplayer games while on the go.

This places the onus on game developers to ensure that the servers delivering their games have fast streaming capability in addition to the ability to scale horizontally to allow millions of concurrent players, no matter their location. In most cases, partnering with a industry-leading content delivery network (CDN) is the best way to ensure gamers enjoy compelling content while developers build a robust bottom line.

The advantages of a CDN for a MMORPG

The best CDNs offer a range of services and capabilities perfectly suited for online gaming. Game content is downloaded faster, while limitless scalability ensures that anyone joining the world is accommodated for once the game becomes a viral hit. Access to the Internet’s leading peering points means that mobile gamers are able to enjoy the action from pretty much anywhere in the world. A service-level agreement promising 100 percent availability keeps these games running on a 24/7 basis.

Game companies looking to enter this growing market need to explore a partnership with a CDN. Combining compelling game content with a top-rank technology stack is a great way to create a MMORPG hit.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

CacheFly and Heartbleed (CVE-2014-0160)

heartbleed

Heartbleed (CVE-2014-0160) has been top of mind, conversation and action for everyone of late. We want to provide you with a detailed update about our work to address this issue.

First, and most importantly, the edge servers that deliver content to users were not affected.  This means all requests to the CacheFly CDN were (and remain) 100% protected by SSL.

Secondly – The CacheFly customer portal was running an affected version of OpenSSL.  This was patched within the first 6 hours of the vulnerability being announced, and SSL keys rotated.

While we have no specific information that suggests any customer accounts were compromised, we recommend all customers update their portal passwords as a precaution (and recommend you do the same for all other SSL-protected websites).  You can update your password here:

https://portal.cachefly.com/portal/password

We strongly encourage the following additional steps for all customers:

- Test all services which use SSL encryption, such as web services using HTTPS, SSL VPNs, load balancers, etc. for this vulnerability. Remember that hardware appliances can also be susceptible.

- Once all services are patched, perform password rotations for anything which may have authenticated to OR through the affected systems.

- Revoke and roll out new SSL certificates for services that may have been exposed.

We encourage all of our customers to perform additional reviews of their internal and external services and confirm they are secure against this vulnerability.

For more information about Heartbleed please visit http://www.heartbleed.com. If you would like to test your devices or sites, a good test for Heartbleed can be found at http://filippo.io/Heartbleed/.

Again, if you have any questions or if we can be of assistance, please do not hesitate to contact us at your convenience.

Best travel websites need superior accessibility for travelers on the road

Travel research

Spring is almost here, and many travelers are looking to rid themselves of cabin fever by hitting the open road for a trip to pretty much anywhere but home. Given today’s mobile-enabled society, these same customers expect to be able to access the best travel websites from their smartphones or tablets. With the nation’s leading providers expanding their 4G LTE network coverage areas, Internet speeds close to a cable or digital subscriber line service are possible from a car, hotel room, or even a recreational vehicle.

Because of the increased availability of high-bandwidth Internet on the go, travel website providers need to be at the top of their game when it comes to two major issues related to the technical architecture of their website. First, rich media content — such as video walk-throughs of a vacation rental property or photos of a restaurant — needs to be delivered in a fast, bandwidth-optimized fashion. Second, the website’s design needs to take into account mobile Web accessibility principles so the site renders properly in smartphone browsers.

Work with a content delivery network partner for mobile website optimization

For mobile Web accessibility, the best travel websites need to make sure their in-house or subcontracted Web development staff are up-to-speed on the latest mobile design standards and best practices. On the other hand, optimizing the delivery of rich media content is best handled by a partnership with a leading content delivery network (CDN) skilled in Web acceleration and other techniques to provide travelers with a captivating experience when accessing a website from the road.

The best CDNs leverage TCP-anycast routing to accelerate Web pages’ loading processes, which is useful for slower mobile Internet networks. Using gzip compression ensures that vital mobile bandwidth is conserved. Access to the Internet’s leading peering points means travel websites are easily accessible from many popular vacation destinations all over the world.

When considering their site’s architecture, travel website providers need to take into account the increasing number of travelers who use their mobile devices to go online. Leveraging a CDN to optimize the delivery of their websites in a bandwith-constrained mobile environment is a smart play for providers.

Photo credit: Flickr

Top music streaming apps continue to grow

hphones

The on-demand music streaming apps industry continues to expand its service offerings to consumers, who are increasingly opting to listening to music with these easy, on-the-go options. The biggest question on everyone’s mind is how to properly grow a solid customer base. To become a top music streaming service, companies must provide the best content streaming experience to draw more customers to their platform.

Pandora

With 70.8 million active users, Pandora is the most popular of all the music streaming apps. Pandora offers both a paid and a free version, with free users monetized with advertising revenue. The paid, ad-free version costs $4.99 per month. Users can build stations based on their favorite songs, but they cannot pick which songs will play. The thumbs-down feature allows listeners to skip songs they don’t like.

Spotify

Spotify is quickly gaining momentum with 24 million users. It has a revenue model similar to Pandora’s, with both free and paid versions. Spotify’s premium subscription, which currently has about 6 million users, costs $9.99 per month and allows customers to play any of its millions of tracks on demand, on any device, with no advertisements. Premium subscribers also have a “Listen Offline” option, where they can cache their favorite music on their mobile device for when they are unable to stream it live. Content delivery networks are becoming more sophisticated to handle the increasing demand for these services.

Rdio

Very similar to Spotify, Rdio offers the same free and premium options for its users, right down to the cost of unlimited streaming and mobile use. Both Rdio and Spotify offer the cache music option for their premium customers. Some argue that Rdio’s user interface is better than Spotify’s, but it has a smaller library of songs to choose from.

Songza

Songza is similar to Pandora in that the app learns what type of music a listener likes and adjusts its playlists accordingly. Songza is unique because it recommends playlists based on the time of day, a user’s mood, an activity, or a theme. The service is free and generates revenue through advertisements, sponsored playlists, and partnerships with companies that build a branded version of Songza tailored to their audience. Businesses utilizing Songza’s services will need content delivery methods that can align with the high-bandwidth demands this medium is known for and, ideally, have scalable capacity for high traffic spikes.

Both Google and Apple are getting into the music streaming game with their own services, and only time will tell whether they will be able to gain momentum in this crowded marketplace. Businesses will have to get creative to find different ways to monetize this revenue stream and make the business model profitable. The determining factor of success may come down who can provide the best customer experience, fastest download speeds, and most reliable service.

To accomplish this, content delivery networks will play a major role in providing the necessary support to supplement current infrastructures, delivering media up to ten times faster than traditional single-hosting delivery. Partnering with a high-performance vendor to assist with content delivery will become a necessity to stay on top in this growing market.

Photo credit: Flickr

The evolving customer service experience in the hospitality industry

With the ubiquity and constant connection of mobile devices on the rise, the average consumer’s preferences are shifting away from interacting face-to-face with customer service representatives toward a desire for more digitized services. The hotel customer service experience is evolving, with more high-tech options for guests than ever before. A new survey of 1,000 British hotel customers by AppyHotel.com found that half of the respondents actually preferred asking for assistance from staff via digital means rather than speaking with them directly, Breaking Travel News reports.

Many hospitality businesses are making upgrades to their current systems to accommodate customers’ new technology expectations. High-end luxury hotels are modernizing whole segments of their customer service offerings, but small and mid-size hotels that can’t usually provide concierge services to their guests now have a cost-effective option for supplying such amenities with these new tools.

Defining the digitalized customer service experience

Courtyard by Marriott, for example, is upgrading their hospitality technology with new digital signage in all of their lobbies. These displays act as high-tech information desks, supplying guests with all the travel data they need in real time, including flight status, local weather, suggestions for activities and restaurants, and area maps with step-by-step directions.

Other new digital offerings include streaming informative videos about area attractions directly to guests’ rooms, interacting with customers through Twitter, and even offering online ordering applications for room service or groceries for customers on extended stays.

Are you prepared for these upgrades?

Providing real-time, high-bandwidth content and services to customers requires more than just shiny new digital screens. Businesses making these changes to provide a more tech-centric customer service experience must consider the IT infrastructure necessary to keep such applications running smoothly. Behind the scenes, increases in website traffic during high-volume periods could cause frustrating lag times for users. Any downtime will not only waste these valuable resources, but it could also negatively affect the customer experience.

Content delivery networks (CDNs) can help support current infrastructure by complementing existing servers, allowing guests to access digital information without interruption even during high-volume periods. Customers pay based on the access that they need, and the best CDN providers offer scalable bandwidth that can help any business keep up with customer demands, no matter its size.

As customers demand more technology from their service experiences, the hospitality industry must continue to evolve their digital offerings to keep up with these new trends.

WWE Network gets off to shaky start

WWE Network issues

WWE Network got off to a rough start.

In an effort to connect millions of fans with the content they care about most, World Wrestling Entertainment launched its own streaming-only network subscription service. Dubbed simply WWE Network, this service allows users to access past, current and future content from WWE for $10 a month (think Netflix for wrestling, but with the added benefit of live-streaming future events such as Wrestlemania and Royal Rumble). However, the service got off to a shaky start, with content delivery issues hampering early adopters’ service with choppy video quality, downtime due to high demand, and log-in problems across multiple platforms.

Preparing for a smooth rollout

Though WWE Network has resolved its issues and users are now enjoying on-demand content, the issues that plagued its launch may have been preventable. Using a content delivery network (CDN) that can scale bandwidth on demand for high-traffic periods is essential when you are launching new content. Though WWE was likely expecting its network to be a hit, it was unprepared and “overwhelmed” by the amount of launch-day traffic it received, according to Deadline. As a result, quality and the user experience suffered. Having in place the flexibility that CDNs can offer before content is rolled out ensures that these kinds of launch-day woes don’t occur.

Getting content to multiple devices

Another widespread issue consumers reported was not being able to log in to non-PC devices to access content. Gaming consoles (particularly Xbox 360s) continued to produce errors, and users were unable to reach content via their chosen devices the same way they could by using a PC. Though rolling out content to multiple devices seems like a tall order, CDNs can ensure users have options when it comes time to launch these services.

Looking beyond launch day

Though launching new content certainly creates an early high-water mark for traffic, it is important to look to the future to forecast when larger traffic increases may increase. One fan, speaking with WhatCulture, expressed concern over “how the WWE will handle the high traffic they will most likely experience on the night of Wrestlemania XXX.” The question is certainly valid. Simply preparing for a launch isn’t enough anymore, and planning for the next big-traffic “event” is crucial when you are planning a content strategy and must adjust for spikes in demand.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Online bank security becomes vital as hacking incidents increase

Banking Security

As e-commerce and online banking become more commonplace, the importance of cybersecurity cannot be overstated. Hacking incidents continue to garner publicity and press, and many people have either been victims themselves or know someone who has been exploited by identity theft or some other form of online fraud. This places the onus on financial services firms to spend significant efforts ensuring their online bank security systems are state of the art.

A closer look at the threats to online banking

The types of cyberthreats to Internet banking and e-commerce companies are wide-ranging and constantly evolving. Firms that provide online banking security consistently play a game of catch-up with hackers and other groups involved in nefarious cyberactivity. Notably in mid-March, three individuals were indicted on an array of charges, including wire fraud, access device fraud, and aggravated identity theft.

Many customers of the leading names in finance were targeted by these individuals’ alleged scheme. Citibank, E*Trade, JPMorgan Chase, Nordstrom Bank, PayPal, TD Ameritrade, and USAA were all victimized, as accounts were surreptitiously accessed, then funds were diverted to debit cards and bank accounts controlled by the alleged criminals. Identity theft was leveraged to file fraudulent tax returns to the IRS and help cash out the stolen funds.

Alan Brill, a senior managing director at risk advisory firm Kroll Solutions, told Bank Info Security that enhancing bank security with defensive measures plays an important role in preventing these kinds of crimes. He said he feels these security improvements need to be tailored to better handle the specific types of cyberfraud noted in this case. Financial service companies that are looking to enhance their mobile banking presence need to be acutely aware of the risks from individuals and groups making cyberthreats.

Newly developed malware is a continuing risk

The Trojan horse piece of malware known as Zeus strikes fear in the hearts of many IT personnel responsible for online bank security. Fresh attack techniques devised by hackers are making Zeus even more difficult to detect. The malware stays hidden inside banking systems as well as customers’ computers, allowing hackers easy access to valuable financial information and customer records.

These new hacking methods appear to be related to the same techniques used to infiltrate POS terminals and computer systems at some large retail establishments. The cybercrime against Target struck fear in many shoppers during the recent holiday season. Cybersecurity researchers continue to note the growing similarity between POS and computer hacking, possibly because criminals are sharing information on techniques.

Mobile device proliferation is another important factor in cybersecurity

With more consumers leveraging mobile devices and websites to conduct banking and other financial activity, bank security initiatives must take into account that customers want to access their accounts and perform transactions wherever they are. The cybercriminals in the case described earlier allegedly used hacked mobile devices as one of the methods to compromise online bank security and access customer’s financial accounts.

Microsoft’s move to discontinue support for Windows XP opens yet another pathway for hackers to gain access to customer passwords and vital financial data, especially considering that many consumers still use Microsoft’s older operating system to access bank websites.

Nonetheless, the customer is always right — so to speak — and if they want to conduct financial activity from a computer, smartphone, or tablet of their choice, it is up to the financial services company to ensure their bank security is capable of protecting them. As criminals and hackers share information, it is important that the people on the front line of the cybersecurity battle also share valuable data on protection techniques and malware detection. Additionally, working with a content delivery network (CDN) helps ensure websites and other online assets enjoy state-of-the-art protection.

The benefits of a CDN for bank security

Partnering with an industry-leading CDN is an important part of a bank’s arsenal against cybercrime. Token-based authentication using information secured by a MD5 hash ensures that only the proper users are able to access valuable banking systems. SSL certificates encrypt all data transmitted to and from a banking website, whether it is accessed from a computer or a mobile device.

Referrer blocking keeps out HTTP requests originating from anywhere other than the bank’s website and also lets IT personnel allow requests from other domains of their choosing. A robust reporting engine allows detailed tracking of any forensic data should a problem ever arise. Other useful features, such as access to the Internet’s most important peering points, mean that bank customers are able to access the website quickly and seamlessly, no matter their location.

Thoughtful and detailed bank security is a must for any financial services company. Keeping out hackers while allowing a wide range of functionality and convenient access remains the ultimate goal. Choosing a top-ranked CDN as a technology partner helps banks achieve these goals.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Pokemon online games take new form in ‘Twitch Plays Pokemon’

Pokémon Games

Playing video games can be hard. Making decisions in RPGs, aiming long sniper shots in first-person shooters, or even judging jumping distances in simple platforming games relies on a gamer’s ability to judge the situation at hand and quickly execute the correct command to ensure success. Imagine if you had to judge a gaming scenario, but you were playing along with 1 million people who were also making decisions — with 36 million people watching. It might seem like an impossible scenario, but it became a reality with “Twitch Plays Pokémon.”

Pokémon online games have their place, but “Twitch Plays Pokémon” was something completely different. The social experiment consisted of nearly 1 million people inputting commands through a custom emulator running “Pokémon Red” (first released in 1996 for Nintendo’s Game Boy). The game started off slow at first, with literally thousands of commands coming in every second, which resulted in the main character spinning around and walking in unpredictable zigzags. However, as the game progressed and gamers became more collaborative and invested, progress actually began to be made. Sixteen days later, the members of Twitch TV had beat “Pokémon Red.”

Delivering Streaming in an Interactive Environment

The interactive streaming element was one of the biggest reasons why “Twitch Plays Pokémon” attracted so much attention. Though streaming service Twitch TV has hosted thousands of individual game streams, “Twitch Plays Pokémon” was the first interactive stream where user input dictated a player’s movement in the game. These types of real-time streams that rely on user input must run without lag so the true gaming experience can be preserved.

“Twitch Plays Pokémon” was also unique because it built viewership as the game progressed, garnering more than 36 million unique viewers over the course of the two-week-long game. This required Twitch TV to make some server adjustments to support the load, according to Ars Technica. When traffic unexpectedly surges, it is vital to have the scalability that content delivery networks provide so individuals streaming your content don’t get left behind.

Though the inaugural session of “Twitch Plays Pokémon” drew to a close in early March, the second iteration of the next generation of Pokémon online games has just begun. Although “Twitch TV Plays Pokémon Crystal” has yet to hit the viewership and engagement highs that the first round reached, it appears well-positioned to establish crowdsourced inputs as a legitimate trend in the gaming world.

If this type of group gaming does become the hallmark of streaming gaming services, it is important that companies hoping to provide users with the opportunity to experience streaming interactive content have delivery methods that ensure everyone can enjoy the game without worrying about technical issues like server overload or lag.

Photo credit: Flickr