top of page

Unlocking Banking Innovation with Platforms: NatWest and Syntasso at PlatEngDay

Creating an effective platform at a bank like NatWest can unlock massive productivity gains and radically improve the developer experience. However, building a platform within a bank requires collaboration across many stakeholders, and the platform has to support a long list of requirements around compliance, governance, and regulation. The team at NatWest quickly learned they had to treat the “platform as a product” to be successful.


Join Chris Plank, Enterprise Architect at NatWest Group and Derik Evangelista, Principal Engineer at Syntasso at the #KubeCon EU colocated Platform Engineering Day ( #PlatEngDay) to learn how NatWest are building their internal platform:

  • Learn what platform as a product thinking means at a top UK bank like Natwest

  • Explore OSS and CNCF technologies used, such as Kubernetes, Backstage, Flux, and Kratix

  • Understand how important inner sourcing is for building enterprise-wide platforms

  • See what being “cloud-native” looks like at NatWest

  • Hear lessons learned along the way and the next steps for driving innovation further

Large glass building in London belonging to NatWest bank
NatWest's main London building, 250 Bishop's Gate

Since this is your first KubeCon, what are you most looking forward to?

CP: I attended KCD UK last year and it was great. There was lots of great networking, great conversations, great ratification and discussion of what we were trying to do. I'm hoping KubeCon will be like that, but even bigger. I'm hoping to hear even more about what other people are doing and what they are learning.

DE:  I'm really looking forward to the talks on the "Platform Engineering" track. There are quite a few on managing multi-cluster Kubernetes at scale that seem very interesting. It will also be a great opportunity to see a lot of tools in action and use the opportunity to ask questions directly to the people involved.


And what about Platform Engineering Day?

CP: Specifically with Platform Engineering, I want to see if what we are doing at NatWest aligns with other teams and organisations. I want to learn about different ideas that we've not thought about, problems that other people have hit that we haven't tackled and understand how they approached those problems. And I'm looking forward to talking again! It's been about 13 years since I last talked at a conference.


Amazing! What did you speak about last time?

CP: IBM Cloud. The new thing at that time was using virtualisation, the precursor to containers. But it was still a container-type image, full automation, exactly what we are talking about now, but in 2011.


I wonder if platform engineering shouldn't feel as new as it does. Why do you think it has taken off so much in the last few years?

CP:  Kubernetes, the toolchains, the CNCF landscape, people's maturity in their usage of public cloud. I think all these things have converged. We've got to the point where platform teams have created terraform scripts, making them available for developers to use. The developers have more self-service capabilities because of that. What we're seeing at the bank is the developers have built on and developed that Terraform. This divergence of experience doesn't scale so our challenge has become about bringing that back into something consistent.


I think that's why platform engineering has taken off - people are starting to look at that consistency, that self-service model using tools like Backstage. Also across teams, can we be a bit more intelligent and do something once, instead of ten, twenty or one hundred times across all our teams.


In your talk title, you mention "platform as a product". What does that mean to you and the bank?

CP: So for us, platform as a product is an initiative and a driver on how we're going to change our approach to consuming services. The engineers in some of our business units know how to write Java applications really well. They don't know the latest AWS services, they don't know the latest Azure services. And they shouldn't need to know them either. They just want to deploy their app and use it in a very simple way.


So our goal is to reduce the cognitive load of our engineers. That's really what it means. Not just for the application developers, but for our platform teams as well. In the division I work in we're using open-source tools like Kratix, GitLab, Flux. There are various tools out of the CNCF landscape that we're pulling together. We're going to create very opinionated products and make those available for people to consume out of Backstage. We're doing this in a very opinionated, very secure way so they don't have to do all the heavy lifting themselves.


Totally agree - it's all about the users. That's a bit of a change from what people might envision for banking. What made NatWest go on this journey?

CP: I think the kickstart was the original PlatformCon in 2022. We heard about Kratix, platform as a product and loads of other platform ideas. It took a little time to sink in! We have since been set four challenges by leadership that I talk about: do things faster, do things simpler, enable inner sourcing and deliver centralised capabilities in a self-service way. We're part way through a multi-year journey and we need to meet these audacious goals and aspirations. With each iteration and planning increment, we're maturing and learning how we can meet those challenges.


You mention inner sourcing as one of those challenges. What does collaboration on a platform look like for you?

James McLeod is the new Open Source programme lead at NatWest and his talk at State of Open Con talks about our aspiration for inner sourcing. We are members of FINOS, which is part of the Linux foundation and there are aspirations for us to share the work we are doing with that community. We want to collaborate and make things available for other banks to use consistently.


Internally, our inner sourcing model will allow us to have multiple teams working on our platform. They can start by using Git to make feature requests, but if they want to contribute they can go ahead and look at the code. They are empowered to start contributing changes so we can get started rather than the federated model. At the moment we have people copying the code and doing their own thing. If we get people collaborating on the central thing then everyone in the bank can benefit.


Banking is a notoriously complex and highly regulated domain but also one with huge leaps forward in innovation in recent years with technology like open banking. How have platforms helped NatWest enable innovations?

CP: There's a diagram in our talk that shows, at a very high level, what NatWest gets out of this. We're baking a lot of governance, orchestration and guardrails into the platform. In the past, that would consume a lot of effort, time and cognitive load. By including these checks into our platform products we minimize the amount of time that people have to spend to get anything done.


We've got over 135 patterns in the bank at the moment. Originally it was "if you follow this pattern, you're going to get a fast pass through governance, you're going to fast pass through the regulation". Over time, they got stuffed full of everyone's different requirements. Patterns became all things to all people. There are an awful lot of them that are very similar, and maintaining them isn't sustainable anymore. Instead, our platform will enable the same checks via automation - you can just consume it and you know you're protected by those guard rails.


Sounds like that will speed things up so much. How will cloud-native tools help get you there?

CP: Everything we're using is cloud-native tooling. Whether it's Kubernetes, Kratix, Terraform or GitLab. We are trying to consume native rather than proprietary like we did in the past, so we use the CNCF landscape a lot. There will always be commercial relationships, but we'll start by using open-source to prove value first, and only once we've proven value will we start the commercial conversations.


Take something like cert-manager or Nginx. We don't need a support contract or procurement process to build a POC. There are ways of consuming these tools in a secure way, with things like Chainguard and the SLSA framework.


On the topic of tooling, Derik you'll be sharing a demo during the talk. What will you be showing us?

DE: The demo will show how you can create your Platform with Kratix and Backstage, and it's based on what NatWest has built internally. You will see how Kratix can be used to manage the resources and automatically populate Backstage's catalogue as new Promises are installed or resources are requested.


And what's the best way for someone to get started with Kratix?

DE: Head out to kratix.io and follow our quick-start guide to get it up and running on your local machine quickly with a single cluster. You can then follow the guides to find out how to write your own Promises. You can also find in the docs a comprehensive two-part workshop that covers all the fundamentals of Kratix.


Final question - what one thing do you hope people will learn from your talk?

CP: I'd like them to understand our journey, the approach we've taken and think about how they can apply that to what they're doing themselves. Because it's a different way of thinking, particularly given we're in a regulated industry. It's one thing for Deliveroo to build a great platform, but that's very different to how a bank would do something. So at the very least, I'm hoping the people who work in financial services can take something away from what I've said and apply it to what they're doing!


I think there will be plenty to learn for people working in any industry! Another huge thanks to my wonderful interviewees, Chris and Derik. If you want to hear more about what NatWest is doing with platform as a product, and see an example of what they've built in action, join us at #PlatEng Day on Tuesday 19th March. Chris and Derik hit the stage at 15:15 with their talk "Unlocking Innovation: How NatWest Bank Uses Cloud Native Tools to Deliver Platform as a Product"



Comments


bottom of page